Dutch windmill at sunset

Windmills, Nebraska’s world link

This article has been a long time in the making. Not as long as windmills have been in existence, of course, but it spans some 60 years, back to a time when an unlikely friendship began.

It started when native New Orleanian Adona Henderson took hold of an opportunity and accepted a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska. Venturing outside her comfort zone, she headed west where she became fast friends with an up-and-coming Nebraskan native named Betty Sayers, who would eventually create Nebraska Rural Living, a website to share her joy of country living. Adona departed our fair planet a few years following Hurricane Katrina, but not before cementing an even more improbable relationship between her two best friends, Betty the Nebraskan and Angela Davis the storyteller.

Angela wears many hats: world traveler, teacher, counselor, property manager, and minister. She married a Dutchman, a farmer in the Netherlands, and continues her travels spanning the globe.

To this day these two friends continue to share stories wherever Angela happens to be. Not long ago, while Betty talked about an upcoming issue of NRL, Angela offered to write a story connecting one of her many world travels to Nebraska. Angela lives in both the Netherlands and New Orleans. Here is her first story connecting Nebraska to the world.

Nebraska’s World Link, From Europe to Nebraska

Angela Davis wedding photo Fred E. Rader declared of the windmill:
“Without, we must emigrate; with it, we can irrigate.”-circa 1895

Early Days of the Windmill in Nebraska and Europe

It gave me goose bumps when I realized that a windmill in my wedding photo is located in the same town where we bought our home. Windmills are an iconic part of the Dutch landscape, and a visit to one is a must for visitors to the Netherlands. Windmills (molens), an integral part of Dutch life for centuries, were employed for industrial purposes like milling grains or draining the lowlands of excess water. More than 10,000 windmills once dotted the Dutch landscape and 1,200 survive today. Two of those are in Wissenkerke, our small village of approximately 1,100 inhabitants and a two-hour drive south of Amsterdam. One windmill is still in use and is open to the general public. It serves as a great tourist attraction for occasional guests.

windmill If you travel back in time to the 1890’s, Nebraskans would find an equal glut of windmills spread from one end of the state to the other, according to The Homemade Windmills of Nebraska, written in 1899 by Erwin Hinckley Barbour. Barbour asserted that windmills extended in almost unbroken succession from Omaha to Denver and from South Dakota through Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It was clear to him that Nebraska was plainly the center of the movement, a fact he boasted seeing firsthand while traveling the state east and west and north and south on his own nickel.

The total amount of wind-powered mills in Europe was estimated to be around 200,000 at the peak. Windmills were built in the countryside and in cities, and even on the walls of castles and fortifications in order to catch more wind. In Nebraska, windmills were more likely to be found in valleys rather than table lands since the water was lower and more easily raised by mills. Barbour seemed surprised that a large number of these windmills were built by wealthy landowners and were used more for luxury than necessity. They were not fortunate to live in today’s modern world where we can take advantage of moderately priced flights to Europe any day of the week so they built their windmills to remind them of back home. It also satisfied their egos as it displayed their prosperity and sense of accomplishment while giving them something to do in their spare time.

During the 1890’s, Barbour designated certain areas such as the Platte Valley region as a windmill center with 20-30+ windmills clustered together in Dutch design by German farmers.

Grinding grain and pumping water

Initially, the only applications for windmills were the grinding of grain and pumping and draining water from lowland areas. Windmills were found not only in the Dutch landscape, but throughout Europe, especially Germany and the United Kingdom. Wind energy has been used in the Netherlands since the inception of the country. Windmills have harnessed the power of the wind to drain the wetlands, saw logs for building, grind grain for food, and many other industrial purposes.

This has not changed as time progressed, though the type of wind power used has certainly changed. In Nebraska one can visit the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum for a peek at examples of turn-of-the-century windmills and more. It’s ranked #4 on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in Nebraska City. Kregel Windmill Company Eli brand windmills are still found in service pumping water for humans and livestock in and around Nebraska to this day.

two dutch windmills over rows of tulips field , Netherlands

Renewable Energy for America currently calculates that two-thirds of Nebraska’s power is generated by coal, with most of the remainder coming from nuclear energy. But with open skies and more than 47,000 farms, Nebraska ranks near the top of the nation in its ability to generate energy from wind, crop waste and energy crops, solar power and bio-gas. Nebraska is poised as the fourth largest wind resource in the country.

Medieval windmills

windmill More than 900 years ago, medieval Europe became the first large civilization not to rely exclusively on human strength. Thousands of windmills and waterwheels, backed up by animal power, transformed industry and society radically. It was an industrial revolution entirely powered by renewable energy, something dreamed of even today. Wind- and water-powered mills were, in essence, the first real factories in human history. Consisting of a building, a power source, machinery and employees, out of them a product was formed.

Windmills and waterwheels were not new technologies. Both machines appeared long before the early Middle Ages and were technically no different from those in use in Nebraska and the Netherlands. Water-powered mills were more important and numerous than windmills. The flow of a river might change according to the seasons, but generally a river always contains water. Not like the south’s summers where water just evaporates leaving barely a creek! Making use of canals and sluice gates, water flow could be precisely controlled to provide the speed or load required by the factory gears.

The wind, on the other hand, was then and still is sporadic and cannot be counted on to always blow. Sounds pretty familiar to you Nebraskans doesn’t it? When it does, wind velocity and direction can change at any moment. Windmills then didn’t have a sufficient process to control wind strength. Water-powered mills appeared in Europe at the end of the 11th century onwards. However not every region was suited for watermills. Either they didn’t have adequate water resources, there wasn’t enough water flowing in the rivers, or that river water froze during the winter seasons.

Windmills appeared in the 13th century across Europe, and spread fast. Later, regions having abundant water resources constructed windmills to relieve the pressure on rivers and streams.

Windmills saved time

Bread and oats were the staple diet of the Middle Ages (meat, fish and vegetables were only available to the rich, unless you hunted and fished and what working (wo)man had time for that?) and all that grain had to be crushed or ground. It took one person at least two hours a day to grind enough flour for the average family which didn’t leave much time for hunting and fishing. Corn windmills were also used to make Dutch gin and other liquors.

Rural road and windmill in Netherlands

The grinding of grain remained the most important use of windmills. As late as 1900, the entire wheat harvest of Northern Europe and many areas in the United States was ground by windmills. Our ancestors were formidable, creative people using windmills for all manner of production — hulling barley and rice, grinding malt, pressing olives to olive oil, and pressing coleseed, linseed, rapeseed and hempseed for cooking and lighting. There were also cocoa mills, mustard mills and pepper mills, tobacco mills and snuff mills. Besides food production, windmills were also used for paper production and the sawing of wood, crushing chalk to make cement, grinding mortar, draining mines, ventilating mineshafts, polishing glass, making gunpowder, crushing seeds from flax to make linen, preparing hemp fibres to produce ropes and sailcloth, making paint, and tanning and dying animal skins.

Traditional windmills were not equipped with blades, but with sails. In colder climates the canvas was generally replaced by slats of wood, which were easier to handle in freezing conditions, which both Nebraska and the Netherlands have.

Windmills required muscle power

Today wind turbines are turned into the wind automatically by means of electronic equipment. When the wind becomes too strong, the electronics turn the blades out of the wind so they are not blown to smithereens. Medieval millwrights had no microchips so they had to find another solution. Vent holes were drilled in the sides of the body of the mill. When the wind started blowing through one of these holes, the miller knew that wind direction had changed.

For many centuries, windmills were turned into the wind by mere muscle power. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Adapting to variations in wind velocity was even more challenging. Factory machinery inside a mill required a precise operating speed. For instance, corn mills worked best at 50 to 60 sail revolutions per minute. Once surpassing 80 sail revolutions per minute, the grain would burn. Another risk was that when sails started turning too fast, the windmill could be destroyed. For centuries, the miller had to do this by hand.

Whew! Anyone else tired after reading about all that work? As I’ve travelled the world, I’ve had so much fun finding links between countries and continents and am eager to share more of those links in the coming months through Nebraska Rural Living and the NRL blog. I hope you will follow along on my journey.


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