Last Updated on July 13, 2023
Europe holds an untold number of historic treasures waiting to be discovered by the intrepid traveler. In the summer of 2023, my wife and I enjoyed a spectacular river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. I had long wanted to view the innumerable castles and ruins along the historic Rhine River and visit those charming French and German fairy tale towns featured in so many travel brochures.
And yes, they were more lovely than expected – well worthy of their own stories.
But for me, travel must also provide a learning experience, and during this cruise, nothing surprised me more than exploring the remarkable windmills of Holland and the industrious lives of the millers and their families who still make these iconic structures their homes and workplaces.
These windmills are not mere relics of the past. They still function today – performing a critical mission.
The people who care for them and live within or among them carry on a proud centuries-old heritage, preserving a way of life that’s difficult for many of us to imagine in this era of modern technology.
Kinderdijk was the first stop on our river cruise once we left bustling Amsterdam. True to the nature of the Netherlands, the land appeared flat for as far as the eye could see. A roadway ran along a wide dike separating the Rhine from the lower water-filled lands on the other side.
Along these watery fields stood an amazing array of windmills, many with their huge, sail-covered blades rotating slowly in the light breeze.
We met our charming guide, Ad, who immediately captured our attention with his wry and disarming sense of humor. This was good since we were all about to embark on a journey that would amaze us far beyond any expectations. Ad was dressed in a light jacket, blue jeans, and yes, true-blue Dutch wooden shoes.
He explained that far from being a novelty item, the shoes were integral to life in the lowlands. He shared with us the purpose, design, and maintenance of these iconic clogs and why they were so useful in this land of boggy soil and graveled roads. This was lesson number one.
The Purpose of the Windmills
Ad then shared lesson number two. The purpose of the Kinderdijk Windmills was like those of most of Holland’s windmills. They were built to pump water, not to operate the millstone and grind grain. Ad went on to explain the geography of his nation, much of which sits below sea level.
Water management is crucial to survival in this low country. For many years, prior to the age of electricity, windmills were constructed to meet this critical need.
Holland’s windmills were a vital component of an elaborate system of ditches that drained the peat fields and turned this part of Holland into fertile farmland. This form of land reclamation has been a practice of the Dutch since medieval times and much of the of their expanded lands still remain below sea level.
The village of Kinderdijk is home to the oldest collection of Dutch windmills in the Netherlands. Here, 19 monumental structures were built from 1738-1740 to keep water out of the Alblasserwaard polder in South Holland. This is the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands and one of the best-known Dutch tourist sites.
Together with the old canal system and other historical buildings, they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws over one million tourists each year.
Fascinating Windmill Operations
Next, we entered into a large work shed filled with windmill artifacts, machinery, drawings and schematics. Here, Ad shared more lessons than we could count, explaining the basic operations of the cog and wheel windmill and how it operates a large underwater paddle that moves water from one drainage system to another at a higher altitude.
Most components were wooden and handmade. Cogwheels transfer horizontal wind-generated power to a massive rotating vertical shaft in the windmill tower. At the bottom, another cogwheel transfers power horizontally again to operate the paddles, or in later windmills, a highly efficient Archimedean screw to move the water.
We also learned of the miller trade and what it took to maintain and operate these powerful windmills. Our guide demonstrated how the millers could rotate the windmill caps to position the blades as the winds shifted. He immersed us in the windmill culture and how the resourceful millers constantly invented new strategies and means to economically ply their trade. These innovative and thrifty millers would rotate and pivot worn spindles to extend their useful lifespans four-fold.
We strolled along the waterway past several windmills and toured a fascinating working one with partially-furnished living spaces. Ad explained that the windmills on the west side of the waterway were constructed of timber and thatch as the earlier constructed windmills on the east side were made of heavier brick and actually began to sink in the damp, porous soil.
The path along the water lined with windmills led past a masterpiece of man and nature working together in perfect harmony. The waterway was pristinely clean with no floating jetsam. Swans and other waterfowl paddled gracefully along reed covered banks.
The windmills peaking out between the reeds and lining both sides of water created a bucolic scene worthy of a painting by one of the Old Masters. The grounds around each windmill were pastoral and impeccably maintained. It was one of those serene moments that remain forever etched in your mind.
Throughout our informative tour, we were delightfully entertained with tales of windmill life, how dormant windmill blade positions conveyed certain meanings, how holidays were celebrated and families were raised. Ad also regaled us with tales of local folklore, fierce storms and floods, heroic rescues, community responses, and social life in this rustic and picturesque Dutch countryside.
The windmills of Kinderdijk remain operational today, their sails still turning with the wind. The heavy lifting of water in the polders is now done by powerful electric pumping stations, but the windmills still churn, still pump water, and in an emergency or power outage, all 19 functional windmills can be pressed into service to prevent or minimize flooding.
That fact alone is another amazing lesson in the ingenuity of the Dutch.