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Ever since the 16th century, hundreds of thousands of Dutch people have been living on the bottom of former lakes. In order to make this possible, many windmills were used to drain the land and keep it dry. Windmills still form an important element of water management in these low lands. The largest windmills will, it is claimed, in a fair wind, lift 10,000 gallons of water per minute to a height of four feet.

In the 17th century, the invention of the camshaft and crankshaft made it possible to use wind energy for a wide range of industrial purposes. Hundreds of windmills were used in the timber, paper and coloring industry and created the world's first industrial zones.

Oldest windmills


It is not known for certain when the first windmills were constructed in Holland. In 1414, the earliest known drainage mills were invented and around 1450 many could be found in South Holland. Windmills did not originate from Holland but are probably introduced in Europe from the Middle East during the times of the Crusades.

Eventhough the windmills do not originate from Holland, the development of the mills is most certainly attributable to Holland. Nowhere else it the world you will find such a diversity of types of windmills.

Industrial Revolution

The advent of technology though, brought a quick end to the windmill's usefulness. First the steam engines, then the combustion engines and finally the electric motor all gradually took over the jobs previously undertaken by windmills.

The windmills were no longer profitable and were either destroyed or used for storage. By 1923, only 3,000 out of 10,000 windmills remained, which further declined to just over 1,000 remaining today. Fortunately, these living monuments are now protected and many of them are open to the public.

The Declaration of Independence

It is believed that the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was written on parchment from Holland, made in the Zaan area. Most probably the windmill "De Schoolmeester" built in 1692 at the Zaanse Schans made this famous piece of parchment.

Type of Windmills

Windmill are divided into two categories, the industrial mill and the drainage mill.

Industrial windmills are named according to their use, sawmill, papermill, etc., but have succumbed to modern technology. There are only a few left.

Drainage windmills keep the land behind the dikes free of surplus water, thereby creating so-called "polders" (reclaimed land). These windmills are still functioning in some of the older polders. The sails of the windmill catch the wind, which in return moves the millstones. There are approximately 1,000 windmills left and they can be found dispersed throughout 12 provinces, but mostly in South Holland.

Language of the windmills

World War II

Windmills speak a language which can be read by reading the position of the sails. There are four positions: the celebration, the mourning, brief resting and longer resting period.

In each position, the sails are slightly tilted one way or another so that the people in town know what is occurring. Certain resting positions were also used to signal messages to confidants. During World War II, messages were relayed by pre-arranged signals, used to warn people in hiding about raids.

Sayings - proverbs

Although the number of mills has dropped, the image of the mill has and always will remain an integral part of Dutch society. Families, streets, places and products frequently have words related to windmills in their names. Likewise, references to the mill occur in Dutch-language proverbs:

An irrational person is said to have "had a knock on his head from the windmill.",
"It's in the mill" means that it is in progress, being worked on, under contruction,
and "A quiet mill grinds no flour" means no accomplishment without working.

When visiting Holland, you may notice a "blue ribbon" attached to the mills. This occurs on the first Saturday of every month and means that these mills can be visited, often free of charge or for a minimal amount towards the upkeep. However, on a day when a mill is working, visitors will most likely be more than welcome as well, because the millers are proud of their mill and are always pleased to show people around.

The Zaanse Schans

The Zaan region along the river Zaan is probably the world's first industrial site ever. Some 250 years ago, well over 800 windmills were cramped into this relatively small area and performed a wide range of industrial duties.

Windmills at the Zaanse Schans

The Zaanse Schans is a fully inhabited, open-air conservation area and museum located 9 miles north of Amsterdam. Original buildings vividly depict Dutch life in the 17th and 18th centuries. The authentic houses, the historic shipyard, the clog-making demonstrations and, above all, the windmills, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The open-air museum also features a wooden shoemaker, a pewter factory, bakery, cheese and dairy farm, and a century-old grocery store.

A boat tour on the river Zaan offers a particularly wonderful view of these mills. Three out of the five windmills are open to visitors and offer the opportunity to take a closer look:

De gekroonde PoelenburgThis sawmill is unfortunately not open to the public.
De KatThis mineral mill produces a range of raw materials for the coloring and paint industry.
De Zoeker and De Bonte HenThese oil mills are both in working order.
De HuismanThis small mustard mill is still in use and the mustard is even sold in many supermarkets, unfortunately it is not open to the public.
De HadelThis drainage mill was used to maintain the desired water level in the polder.

Just outside Zaanse Schans you will find windmills with captivating names, such as 'De Bleeke Dood' (The Bleak Death), 'De Ooievaar' (The Stork) and 'De Held Jozua' (The Hero Joshua). The nearby windmill 'De Schoolmeester' (The Teacher) is the last remaining paper windmill in the world. For many centuries, paper produced in this region was considered the best quality paper in the world. Did you know that it is believed that America's 'Declaration of Independence' was written on paper from De Zaan?


The Dutch were the first real innovators of the windmill. They used windmills primarily to remove water from the land. For five centuries, windmills were the primary power source in Holland.

Kinderdijk is located 60 miles south of Amsterdam. Here nineteen glorious masterpieces, all dating from 1740, compete for the visitors' attention. The windmills are lined up in two opposite rows. The round brick windmills on one side drain the Nederwaard. On the opposite side, the octagon windmills keep the Overwaard from being flooded.

Kinderdijk is one of the best known sights of Holland and together with the Zaanse Schans, Kinderdijk is probably one of the best known examples of the typical Dutch landscape. Images of this unique windmill landscape are featured in every photo book on Holland. In 1997, the Kinderdijk mills were placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

When these windmills are in operation, it is a spectacular sight which will take you back 250 years.