The prospect of visiting two mills in one go got us out of bed before dawn Saturday. Having snowed a bit the day before, it was still around freezing and misty as the bus dropped us off in the countryside of Utrecht. A fifteen-minute walk to the canals under a highway and along a bike route, soon we could see the two distinct windmills in the distance. The wind was very slight, but we could see they had full black sails and the smaller mill was turning gradually. On today’s menu were two water mills that work together to pump water from the lowerlands to the Vecht river. Only the occasional runner or biker passed us and a family of swans paddled through icy canals. There was a steady hum from the highway.
We were curious if the smaller mill would be functioning as we had read online that the Buitenwegse Molen had caught fire the previous year and was being restored. It was! The red “wipmolen” type mill typical of Rijnland (not Utrecht where we were) was shiny and new and soon we met the first miller Arie who was surprised that we noticed that the wings looked different as the boards on the right side of the wing were much wider. “You noticed?! How much time do you have? Do you want the long or short tour?” he asked. “The long one, of course!” The Buitenwegse Molen (built 1830/restored 2017) still had 30% of its original structure remaining inside, thick beams burned black with new fresh wood in stark contrast, and thus it remains a monument and eligible for historical funds. There are haunting photos online of what looks like a black skeleton of a mill. The miller was particularly emphatic that after the fire the older system from the 1930s could be reinstalled, called “Dekker” system, most notably a different wing design. Apparently 3-D printing was also used to model the original mill to make an exact copy. We peered into the water pumping screw and water mechanism, and soon climbed the slick steep stair to the top where we could barely fit inside the tiny upper-house that houses the wooden toothed wheels and axis, mechanically transferring wind power downwards. We listened to the humming, thumping, and occasional creaks, and countryside sounds that filtered in from beyond. The miller told us about a theater performance for school classes that had happened there a few years ago…
Soon the other miller Daan came over to say hello, and it was time to descend. We began to explain our performance and how we are searching for a location for June or September, and next thing we know we are invited for a coffee inside the gargantuan mill across the thin canal! Unusually, we were greeted by a miller’s wife who served us a coffee and invited us into the reconstructed living quarters, cheerful green, nice and warm. (Heating, what luxury!) In the water mills people could actually live because there was no dust from grain or sawdust to breathe in. The tiny built-in beds always shock me. People would sleep sitting or curled up, sometimes three in a row and with a baby in a built-in crib (kind of the size of a flowerplanter you’d see hanging outside a window). I suppose if you close the door and have the coal pan underneath one could share the heat. Americans nowadays have built-in closets, and the Dutch of old built-in cots. This octagonal mill, five-stories wide, and the largest in the region even had two beds on two levels.
The feeling today was one of anticipation as a very large tour group was to arrive soon. A young man arrived to help with the translation. He kindly took time before the group arrive to guide us through the gigantic Westbroeksemolen (built 1753). This one also had a reed-cover like De Ster the week before, but was incredibly wide, and the water screw was the largest I have seen. Both mills are part of the national effort to keep the polder regions below sea-level dry. The millers are on stand-by for emergencies, but the last time they were called upon to help was in the 80s, they said. If there is a failure of electricity, the old wind technology can be activated (weather permitting, of course). The history of this mill is quite extensive as well, having been moved from another location (and possibly as a different type of mill), with various restorations and modernizations installed including a dieselmotor. All part of the story of a living machine adapted to the times.
By the end of our visit the sun had come out and wind picked up enough for the Westbroeksemolen to turn as well. Full of ideas and dreams of performing with two mills, we walked back to return to the city and ponder possibilities.