HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Every spring, thousands of people flock to the fields of Holland for Tulip Time, taking in anything and everything Dutch. In the middle of it all, a rare piece shows the deep connection between the city and the Netherlands: De Zwaan Windmill.
Considered the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the United States, “The Swan” serves as the cornerstone of the Windmill Island Gardens, 36 acres of winding paths along tulip fields and more historic Dutch attractions.
While the plan and implementation took years, the windmill itself dates back centuries. Despite all the studying and analysis, “The Swan” still contains many mysteries.
ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
The city of Holland was settled in 1847 by Dutch Calvinist separatists, cementing the city’s roots in Dutch heritage, but the decision to lean into that history didn’t take hold for many years. In the mid-20th century, city leaders first started talking about playing up their Dutch heritage.
In 1961, they came up with the idea of building a new park and bringing an actual Dutch windmill across the Atlantic Ocean to serve as its main attraction. But it was easier said than done.
“At that time, the Netherlands was just starting to protect windmills. They actually passed a law that said you couldn’t export them anymore,” Matt Helmus, the development manager for Windmill Island Gardens, told News 8. “(Holland) was one of two exceptions: here and Aruba, which is a Dutch colony.”
Still, it took years to put a deal in place.
“We had folks go over and look at different mills and ask if they could buy them. And with the help of the Dutch Mill Society, they found De Zwaan in a town called Vinkel in the southern part of the country and the owners agreed to sell it,” Helmus said.
Turns out, there were other reasons why the sellers didn’t mind giving up their windmill. De Zwaan was in rough shape. Like many windmills at that time, De Zwaan was riddled with bullet holes. Nazi forces regularly shot at windmills because the Dutch would use them to transmit messages to neighboring towns.
The original metal blades are on display at the foot of the windmill where people can see the holes where bullets cut through.
Holland officials and the sellers inked a deal in 1964, making De Zwaan the last authentic Dutch windmill to leave the country. Millwright Jan Diederik Medendorp was tasked with carefully disassembling it, labeling pieces, getting it moved to Michigan and putting it back together. He started in June 1964. The windmill had made its way to Michigan by October and the mill was officially opened on April 10, 1965. The city held a dedication ceremony alongside then-Gov. George Romney and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
A WORKING MILL
Part of what makes De Zwaan Windmill so special isn’t just its history, its beauty or its gorgeous views, but that it is a fully functioning mill.
The Gardens offer group tours that take people through the mill and explain the process and the equipment used at the mill.
The first floor includes wide doors where farmers could pull in and drop off their grains. Pulley systems are in place for millers to lift the grain up to the milling floor and add it to the hopper. It also includes a wooden clog on a rope to drop off money or paperwork.
The mill stones are on the fifth floor, where the blades of the windmill, through a series of gears, turn the giant stones and grind the grains into a powder.
From there, the powder is sent through to a chute to a lower level where it can be sifted and packaged.
The Gardens mostly grind flour from a soft white winter wheat grown in Michigan. The flour, which is great for cookies, muffins and other baked goods, is sold in 1-pound or 3-pound bags. The mill also sells stone ground corn meal and polenta.
The Gardens paused milling during the COVID-19 pandemic, but plan to start again later this summer.
DE ZWAAN: BY THE NUMBERS
125: De Zwaan Windmill stands 125 feet from the base of the building to the apex of its blades.
3: It has called three cities home. The windmill was first built in 1761 to grind grain in the town of Krommenie. It was eventually moved to Vinkel in the late 19th century, and then sold to Michigan developers in 1964. However, some millwrights dispute the details behind De Zwaan. According to Helmus, one of the millwrights the Garden works with is convinced it was used as a water mill in the past, due to certain missing parts and rotting beams that needed to be replaced.
7,000: When De Zwaan was dismantled and shipped to Michigan in 1964, it came in approximately 7,000 different pieces. According to the state’s historical commission, the pieces weighed a combined 86 tons.
140,000: This year, the Windmill Island Gardens will have about 140,000 flowers on display. Tulips make up the vast majority, but the park also includes some daffodils, hyacinths and other flowers. Each year, the Gardens digs up its tulips and plants different annuals and perennials, giving the park a completely different look in the summer.
130,000: In 2021, the Windmill Island Gardens set its record with a little more than 130,000 visitors. About half of them come during Tulip Time. Helmus chalked it up to people itching to get outside and travel following 2020. The Gardens takes an all-hands-on-deck approach during Tulip Time, with 30 to 40 staffers at the park instead of the 10 to 12 it usually has in the summer.
THREE DUTCH TREASURES
The windmill is one of the park’s “three Dutch treasures,” according to Helmus. In addition to the park, the Gardens also include a children’s garden, a Little Netherlands village display and a visitor’s center. And it features two more authentic Dutch gifts.
Before the park was built, the city of Holland received an authentic Dutch street organ from the city of Amsterdam.
“That was a way to say thank you because the Dutch community here in West Michigan sent a lot of money and clothing and supplies back to the Netherlands after World War II when it was devastated by the Germans,” Helmus said.
The Four Columns street organ was built in 1928 and still plays several classic Dutch tunes. It now includes a motor, but the original hand crank is still there to blow air into the bellows. It reads books of music, similar to a player piano. The organ was featured in several Tulip Time parades, but eventually fell into disrepair before being preserved and added to the Gardens.
The park also features an authentic Dutch carousel. It was built in 1908 and was originally used in a traveling show. It was brought to the Windmill Island Gardens in the 1970s and restored. Each animal is made of wood. The park has spent the last eight years restoring each of them.