Holland history: Tulips, wind power, and the Habsburg Empire

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a 10-part series on the history of the Holland area.

Today tulips seem as Dutch as it gets. Holland’s Windmill Island Gardens has rows and rows of the flowers.

However, tulips were first discovered wild in the mountainous area where China, Tibet and Afghanistan converge. As early as 1055 they are noted as being cultivated for landscaping flowers in Istanbul, and became a popular garden flower among Sultans of the Ottoman Empire.

The beginnings of the Eighty Years War, the Dutch war of independence from Spain, in the 1560s also saw increases to international trade that gave rise to an era of great wealth. Unlike much of Europe where wealth was concentrated among a class of landed noblemen, Dutch wealth grew among a large merchant class. As wealth grew, so did the demand for luxury goods.

Tulips had been brought to the Netherlands by Dutch merchants in the middle of the 16th century. By the end of the century, public tulip gardens had been planted, a respected botanist had written a popular book on tulip cultivation, and demand for tulip bulbs was swelling.

Growing demand

That demand was met largely by the skill of Dutch horticulturalists in cultivating bulbs by division, yielding a new bulb in a year, as opposed to growing a new bulb from seed, which takes over a decade. They also perfected skills in propagating an explosion of new varieties. Over time, the Netherlands has evolved into the role of flower gardener to the world. The tulip bulbs Holland, Mich., ordered in 1928 to launch the first Tulip Time came from the Netherlands. So also do the bulbs the city buys and plants today.

Though windmills may date back to 500 BC in ancient Persia, no other country is as readily associated with windmills as the Netherlands. And the reason is pretty simple. Nether means low. The Netherlands, along with Belgium, were sometimes referred to as the Low Countries. In fact, roughly a third of the country today sits below sea level, and the average elevation of the entire country is less than 100 feet above sea level.
So what has this to do with windmills?

Power of the wind

As Europe began harnessing power from nature, water provided a source of energy that could be captured wherever mountainous or hilly terrain offered flowing rivers or streams. But the Netherlands, flat as it is, had virtually no flowing water as a source of energy. What it had in abundance, though, was wind … blowing in from the North Sea. So beginning in the 16th century, and continuing into the early 19th century, the Dutch built windmills. Most of them were used to pump water. It was the windmill that allowed the Dutch to build dykes to protect land from the sea, and to pump water out of low lands to reclaim the seabed and grow the country. Windmills that pumped water were known as “polder” mills.

But windmills did much more than pump. Mills that ground grain were known as “grist” mills. Other mills ground seeds for oil, or made paper and cloth. Sawmills, driven by wind power, played a large part in Dutch history by facilitating the shipbuilding industry. Dutch naval forces, allied with the British, were able to defeat the 130-ship Spanish Armada launched in 1588 by the Spanish Hapsburg empire. In ensuing years, Dutch trading ships elevated the Netherlands to a dominant place in global trade.

Dwindling history

At one time, there were as many as 9,000 to 10,000 windmills in the Netherlands. Today, there are roughly 1,000 left on the national register. Preservation laws guard them as a national treasure, prohibiting their demolition, and most certainly their export. It was no small accomplishment for Holland, Mich., to secure approval for the purchase, dismantling, transport, and reassembly of the last windmill allowed to be exported from the Netherlands.

There are a couple other authentic Dutch mills that are no longer operational, and there are a couple of excellent domestic reproductions, but de Zwaan is the only authentic operational Dutch windmill in the United States.

A vintage post card shows de Zwaan windmill on Windmill Island Garden.
That the city of Holland has it here is due mostly to the tireless efforts of two civic leaders, Carter Brown and Bill Wichers. Brown was heir in 1917 to the 1892 castle that still stands in the historic Castle Park residential association south of town. Wichers was founder and, for many decades, the managing director of the Holland Museum. Together they convinced the Holland City Council in 1961 to authorize issuance of $450,000 in revenue bonds for the purchase, transport, and reconstruction of an authentic Dutch windmill.

After lengthy negotiations with Dutch authorities, they were able to purchase a grinding windmill from a miller in the village of Vinkel. It had ceased operating prior to World War II, suffered considerable neglect, and was further damaged during the war. Terms of the sale included a commitment by the city to restore and maintain the mill in operating condition.

Holland's own miller

It was known at the time of purchase the mill did not originate in Vinkel, but had been moved there by barge from a previous site. Though there was much speculation about its original home, certainty was elusive. Thanks to remarkable research by DeZwaan’s miller, Alisa Crawford, published in her 2015 book De Zwaan: The True Story of America’s Authentic Dutch Windmill, we now know the full story. De Zwaan was built in Dordrecht (best known to Calvinists as home of the 1619 Council of Dort) in 1833. It was built and operated as a sawmill until 1884, at which time the sawmill was converted to steam power, allowing removal of the cap, the blades, and the gear mechanism related to wind power. The windmill components were then transported by barge to Vinkel where they were reconstructed and repurposed as a grinding mill, turning wheat to flour.

Initial projections were that Holland’s authentic operating windmill would draw up to 500,000 visitors a year. At its peak, it only approached half that volume, and currently struggles to approach 100,000. This has led to the addition of a large tent event venue, and efforts to attract greater enjoyment of the park and gardens by the local community. Regardless of visitor revenues, since its reconstruction and dedication in 1965,  de Zwaan has joined the tulip as symbolic of the city of Holland, and been a source of pride for the community.

Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.
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