Holland, Michigan is a small town that has become famous nationwide for its beautiful tulips. Growing lavish displays of tulips each year is a community effort. I’d love to be there when everyone is out taking up the bulbs at the end of a season or putting them back in. But we were there during blooming time and what could really be any better than that? In certain areas, such as Windmill Garden Island and Tulip Lane, there are so many red, pink, yellow, peach, orange, and blue tulips, as well as variegated blooms, one simply has to gasp at the sight.
But, then, we were expecting to see bright tulips. We had read about them and decided to include Holland in our trip. What we hadn’t expected was the wonderful opportunity of climbing to four of the five levels in the oldest working windmill in the U.S., two hundred and fifty-one, in fact, and itself an immigrant.
Holland is not as old as de Zwaan (The Swan) Windmill.
Holland, Michigan, was settled, not surprisingly, by the Dutch in 1847. Dutch Calvinist separatists led by Dr. Albertus van Raalte left the Netherlands hunting a better life and freedom. Harsh conditions confronted them but they were hardy and persistent. They wouldn’t give up though snow banked their houses, there was little to eat, and illnesses bombarded them. The fact that now there are two five-generation businesses in town as well as several four-generation establishments speaks of the tenacity and grit of these Hollanders. They are proud of their history as U.S. citizens but also proud of their roots in the Netherlands.
Their pride in their roots, I think, led them to aspire to bring a working windmill from the Netherlands to Holland, Michigan in 1964.
It wasn’t easy. The Netherlands had relatively few windmills left, largely because of World War II. The government had made a decision not to let any more be taken for any reason. But requests from Michigan citizens Carter Brown and Willard Wickers finally persuaded them to let de Zwaan Windmill go to Holland, Michigan. There were two promises, though, to be kept. One of their own millers should be allowed to spend six months setting it up and teaching a miller how to operate it in its new location, and it was to remain a working windmill open to the public. Of course it cost money, too, about $450,000. Dick Medendorf, a third generation miller and millwright, was the one who supervised the move. It was transported in 7,000 pieces and reassembled on a base constructed for it on what is now Windmill Garden Island.
All this and more we learned from a wonderful costumed lady guide who led us up to the fourth of five levels explaining the history and working of the windmill as she went. She even showed us how the huge millstones, powered by wind, could be set to produce different types of flour and meal from hefty bags of grain hoisted by pulleys up through the center of the mill to the top level where they would be fed into the gristmill. She also showed us how the gears could be reset periodically to receive the current wind for the most productivity. And she told us about Alisa Crawford, the resident miller, the first and only woman in the world to be Dutch-certified as a miller.
Alisa, even at thirteen, was “turned on” to the excitement of history. Degrees in history later she became so interested in the history of Holland that she wanted to be a part of passing it on. She also loved grinding wheat into flour. Realizing that as a miller she could demonstrate history and keep it alive, she determined she would go to the Netherlands and take the two year study to become Dutch-certified. Now she is working daily with her two loves, history and milling. I am so interested in this young lady who chooses to live in the past, that I plan to do another blog on her alone. Anyone who wakes up every morning listening to the wind to know how her day will go has to be interesting!
From the top of the 125-foot windmill we looked down on acres of tulips, on townspeople setting up tents for the beginning of the tulip festival the next day, and on the lake and river surrounding this Windmill Island.
Before we left the town of Holland, we ate lunch at the Windmill Restaurant and drove down Tulip Lane. We tried unsuccessfully to find some flour ground at de Zwaan. It would be on sale the next day, we were told.