Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Looking to the Wind: The Jamestown Mill

Looking to the Wind: The Jamestown Mill
Written by NJ Historian

Just across the bridge from Newport, Rhode Island is a windmill powered by the strong breezes from the waters off of Narragansett Bay. Standing three-stories tall in a field adjacent to a meadow, the 1787 Jamestown Windmill looks like it belongs in a fairy tale, or at least Don Quixote. Once an important building in this small seaside and agrarian community, the windmill has been preserved for over one hundred years as a relic of a bygone era, thanks to a group of forward and civic-minded individuals shortly after the turn of the century.

A short and stout windmill in the middle of a field in twenty-first century America may catch the occasional passerby off-guard. It is not the typical windmill that today generates electricity and is often seen off-shore or in the fields of the Midwest. Rather, the iconic Jamestown Windmill is surrounded by a sturdy stone wall and its motionless, wide arms are within reach. The windmill is known as a smock mill, which was very common throughout southern New England and Long Island in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A smock mill is a type of windmill that consists of a sloping, horizontally weather-boarded tower, usually with six or eight sides. It is topped with a roof or cap, called a bonnet, that rotates in order to bring the sails into the wind. The bonnet carries the wind shaft and the arms, or sweeps. This type of windmill got its name from its resemblance to smocks worn by farmers. The majority of smock mills are octagonal in plan, with a lesser number hexagonal in plan. A number of surviving smock mills can be found on Long Island, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. 

The Jamestown Mill is constructed of hand-hewn chestnut timbers and it is shingled on its exterior. The diameter of the mill is nineteen feet, three inches at the bottom and fourteen feet, six inches at the base of the bonnet. Two simple board-and-batten doors are located on opposite sides of the first floor. Small windows line four sides of the mill, allowing light to enter when their single-shutter is opened. A sprocket wheel is located on the bonnet, connected to a chain that almost reaches the ground. By pulling on the chain, the entire bonnet of the mill can be turned so that the sails can catch the breeze. It takes sixteen pulls of the chain to move the bonnet ninety degrees. On the opposite side of the mill, a brake line is connected to a brake, in order to stop the turning vanes. The brake was never used to slow down the mill, only immobilize it. Each arm, or vane on the windmill is fifty feet long. Combined, the sail area is 540 square feet.

The mill has three floors, each devoted to a specific part of the milling process. The ground, or milling floor, houses two levels: the meal floor and, elevated three feet above it, the stone floor level. This is where the actual milling is performed. The second floor, or bin floor, was primarily used for grain storage. It is also where the miller fed the grain or corn through a trapdoor in the floor, where the grain bin probably stood, directly above the hopper. The third floor, or dust floor, houses the bonnet and the gears that transfer the horizontal rotation of the turning windshaft to a vertical drive shaft that carries the power to the runner stone on the first floor.

This mill is believed to be the third windmill used by the island's early settlers. Records indicate that a post mill occupied the site, constructed circa 1730. Post mills were mounted on a pivot, or post, and to turn the sails to face the wind, the whole structure had to be turned by pushing or pulling on a long horizontal level, called a tadpole. This mill operated for only a few years, most likely due to the deterioration of the pivot. Efforts were made to replace the post, but were not successful until the current mill was built in 1787.

A view of the brake wheel and wind shaft.
After the American Revolution, the residents of Jamestown asked the Rhode Island General Assembly to set aside a portion of the Wanton Farm for a windmill. The land had belonged to Colonel Joseph Wanton, Jr., a British loyalist and colonial Deputy Governor. He fled when the British evacuated the area in 1779. The state confiscated his property and in March of 1787, granted the residents of Jamestown one half acre of land for the purpose of erecting a windmill for grinding grain as long as it was kept in good repair. Immediately, the windmill and a cottage were built. To pay for the construction, Jamestown sold town-owned roads to farmers. 

For 109 years, until 1896, the mill ground feed for horses and cattle and jonnycake meal. Jonnycake meal is milled from a special variety of corn called Rhode Island white flint. This corn is still grown and stone-ground at Rhode Island mills. Over the course of its operating years, fourteen men held the position of miller. The first miller, Jethro Briggs, was hired on May 25, 1788. He would eventually buy the mill from the town, but not in conventional currency. He paid with 200 bushels of corn. This exchange allowed him to keep 3/32 of every bushel ground in the mill. By the 1880s, the mill was becoming obsolete. It could not compete with rolling mills, which ground grain between steel rollers. Additionally, transportation improved and became cheaper, allowing corn and grain to easily move large distances. Thomas A. H. Tefft and Jesse C. Tefft were the last millers from 1893 until 1896.

Jamestown Mill, circa 1890.
From 1896 to 1904, the mill stood vacant. Local Jamestown residents formed the Jamestown Windmill Society in response to the abandonment of the mill and damage from vandals and the elements. The group raised $780.00 to purchase and repair the mill from the Teffts. Despite the site being abandoned for eight years, much of the machinery remained untouched, just as it was when the mill closed.

In September 1912, the mill was given to the newly-formed Jamestown Historical Society. Since 1912, the Society has maintained and restored the mill. The stone wall was built around the property sometime between 1904 and 1920. In 1987, a fund devoted to mill upkeep was established by sisters Nan Thompson and Margaret Evans. Major restoration work is required approximately every fifteen years, with the most recent completed in 1982 and 2000-2001. Today, the mill stands as a reminder of Rhode Island's colonial past, when farms and mills dotted the landscape. Every other year, the Jamestown Historical Society hosts Windmill Day, when the sails are hoisted onto the vanes and catch the breeze, reigniting the millstone and carrying on a tradition that is over two-hundred years old.

Additional photos of my trip to the Jamestown Windmill on Pinterest

Jamestown Windmill Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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