Windmills, Polders and Dykes

The Zaanse Schans Windmill Park near Amsterdam

Lately on my travels I’ve given into taking bus tours and merged myself into the same kinds of large or small groups of tourists that I generally confront with scorn and impatience when I’m on my own. So far I’ve never been disappointed with these tours: it’s a good way to see the countryside and learn about a new place. In the Netherlands I joined a big-bus tour that my St. Petersburg travel companion (cousin Maryellen) had already booked for her one day in Amsterdam. That tour combined automated narrative with a live guide who spoke English, Dutch, Spanish and French. It turns out there’s a lot to learn about water management in the Netherlands, and most of it is amazing.

This recent New York Times article explains some of it:

Zaanse Schans Windmill Park

In this post I want to talk about windmills. The iconic Holland windmills are disappearing, but like steam engines, there are folks dedicated to preserving some of this traditional technology. Preservation is also supported by the Dutch government.

We often forget that “drive” shafts are older than steam and internal combustion. Traditional labor saving drive shafts were originally driven by water and wind (not to mention horses, donkeys and humans.)

The ubiquity of windmills in the Netherlands was due to their use for pumping water. You can read specifics here:

Some of the things I learned on the bus tour were:

  • Everyone in the Netherlands has been paying taxes for centuries for water management and flood control.
  • The Dutch know how to reclaim below-sea-level land for agriculture by multi-decade projects that involve diking and pumping.
  • When they got tired of major floods from the huge shallow bay called the Zuiderzee, they closed it off and turned it into a freshwater lake.
Working windmill making linseed oil at Zaanse Schans

But windmills, being motivation for drive shafts, don’t just pump water. Some of the other functions I saw demonstrated were grinding grain, making oils such as linseed oil, and sawing wood. You can also grind pigment for paint.

Sawmill at Zaanse Schans

One of the Zaanse Schans windmills is a working sawmill. When I saw this, the penny dropped about how much work goes into creating planks for houses, ships, palaces and other structures. The windmill guide told us in his spiel (in English) how much quicker it was to use a windmill to saw planks as opposed to two guys with a big saw. (I forgot the relative hour statistics.) That brought to mind the Dutch East India Company and the navy that made it possible, and indeed, all the major European wooden navies.

Sawmill ramp
Sawmill yard


Model of a windmill using a screw pump to move water to a higher level (Molen de Adriaan, Haarlem)

Another concept I managed to absorb was the incremental process of draining water from below sea level. The Dutch do it in a step-wise process, using polders (isolated “hydrological entities” as Wikipedia calls them) of different levels. Basically you pump water from a polder at one level to an adjoining one at a higher level. Eventually you’ve got a polder or canal that’s high enough to drain into the sea by gravity.

After this lecture on the bus, I started noticing how the ubiquitous canals and ponds all have different levels. Then I tried to imagine the complexity of managing water levels in all these hydrological entities but gave up. It makes sense that King Willem-Alexander is deeply involved in water management (when he isn’t sneaking off to fly for KLM:

Wind turbines in the Rotterdam Port area

Nowadays the ever-present waterpumps are invisible, at least to me. Since they’re electric, it’s possible they are run on coal power, which is a major source of power for the Netherlands.  But the Dutch are also building wind turbine farms.

Molen de Adriaan art shot. This is a rebuilt, non-working windmill that was located on one of the city wall towers of Haarlem.








3 thoughts on “Windmills, Polders and Dykes

  1. Thanks for posting this, Connie. I am amused by the gingham curtains and what looks like a dining table and chairs in the model of the screw pump windmill. So homey!


    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I guess it makes sense that there would be someone “on watch” 24/7 in a windmill pumping water. They would have to be ready to change the set and direction of the sails in response to shifts in the wind.


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