Tradition in windmills

When we see the windmills in the landscape, we shall find that when the sails are at a standstill they are not always and everywhere in the same position. There is a reason for this, for the different POSITIONS OF THE SAILS all have their own special meaning. In this way the miller can give information of different kinds, indicate particular circumstances, and even express particular sentiments.

Formerly the miller, like the burgomaster, the notary public, and the schoolmaster, was an important figure in the rural community: everything that went on in the village attracted the attention of the miller, who moreover had plenty of opportunity to discuss all the news at length with his customers, who came to call for the meal and often had to wait some time. He used to intimate certain events by means of the position of the mill's sails, visible to all from afar, and it is small wonder that conversely the mill formed a centre of village life, for young and old.

It was quite easy to read the 'code' of the sails, even at a great distance, because from the nature of things a windmill is clearly visible from all sides, since it is often built on a natural or artificial mound and always rises above all the buildings and trees surrounding it. And for drainage mills, which are usually situated at great distances from the inhabited world, the same thing holds as for ships at sea, viz. that men like to indicate their intentions across a considerable distance with the aid of signals, sometimes combined with the use of flags.

The position of the sails accordingly speaks its own language, which is clear to all who can read it.

When looking at a mill from the front, you will find that the sails always turn counterclockwise. The origin of this is to be sought in the fact that this is the most natural direction in connection with the handling of the sails by the miller. When the miller has to reef the sails, furl them up, take them in, or set them, he starts by climbing into the sail. It stands to reason that he begins in the sail that is directed vertically downwards. He mounts the framework and - just as on board ship - has to use one hand to hold on and the other to handle the sail-cloth (the rule on board ship is: one hand for the ship and one hand for work). It is obvious that he will use his right hand for the work; this implies that he must have the stock on his righthand side in order to detach the cloth or fasten it. And thus the sail, when directed vertically downwards, having the stock to the right and the framework to the left, the sails have to turn counterclockwise.

So looking at the upper sail, you will always see it move from right to left. Now the miller expresses 'joy' by making this sail stop just before it reaches the highest (vertical) position; he then fixes the sail in the so-called 'coming' position. The upward movement which the sail can then still make is associated with joy, and this is easily remembered by everybody concerned. The position of joy announces celebrations in the mill, on account of the birth of a son or daughter, a marriage, a solemn birthday, or something of the kind. Frequently a flag is also flown from the cap of the mill or from the sail in its highest position. This presents a very gay spectacle.

When the upper sail has been fixed after having passed through the highest position, it is in the 'going' position; this is the position of mourning, indicating that the culminating point has been passed and life is going downhill. This is the position when a member of the miller's family has died or there is some other reason for mourning.

When a funeral procession in the village passes the mill, even when the person who is to be buried was not directly associated with the miller or his family the mill will still be set in the mourning position. It is decidedly a touching sight when cap and sails are turned to follow the direction taken by the procession and finally stop in the position facing the churchyard.

Joy and mourning are the most pronounced sentiments that can be read from the position of the sails. But there are also other messages which the miller conveys by means of the sails in intermediate positions, such as the request to a carpenter or a millwright to come to the mill for repairs to some component, or the information that the stones are being dressed, so that for some time to come no grain can be accepted for grinding. In the case of drainage mills the sign to start or stop pumping in connection with the level of the water of the storage basin or the water level in the polder, or with fouling of channels or ditches, is also given by means of the position of the sails; and there are more things that can be indicated in this way. Those who wish to learn more about this may be referred to other publications.

Four characteristic positions of the sails
Above left: rest for a short time during working period
Above right: rest for a longer period
Below left: 'celebration' position, with the upper sail just before the vertical
Below right:'mourning' position, with the upper sail past the vertical
(The sails turn counterclockwise)

Now that we have spoken about different positions of the sails which give expression to particular moods in the miller's family and in village life, we must not omit to mention the position of the sails in ordinary circumstances.

In summer, the drainage mills have little work to do - for though a mill can pump out much water in 24 hours, the evaporation due to the milliards of blades of grass and reeds in summer is a multiple of this - and the windmills are in the 'rest' position: the sails then form a St. Andrew's cross. This is the proper time for carrying out some additional maintenance work or giving the mill a fresh coat of paint, brightening the colours of the star on the poll end, painting the gates around and near the mill a fresh white and green.

When the sails are at an angle of 45 degrees to the vertical, this indicates that the mill will be unused for a considerable time.

A rest of short duration, i.e. in the milling season proper, when the mill is ready to commence work at any moment, as soon as the wind gets up, is shown by one pair of sails in the vertical and the other pair in the horizontal position.

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