Windmill a witness to island’s history
The windmill stands to this day on Windmill Hill, overlooking Marsh Meadows and Great Creek. It has witnessed 222 years of American history.
Many are not aware that the present windmill is the second erected at the same location. The first windmill was destroyed during the Revolutionary War.
At the time, the town relied on sea breezes to provide the power required for grinding corn. Before steam engines and electric motors, Jamestown had no other resources like free-running streams to tap for waterpower. The wind was the island’s only energy source.
The town learned something from the 109 years of operating service provided by the windmill. Today, the town is again exploring the use of wind power to fulfill its energy needs.
Before the windmill was retired in 1896, 14 different millers worked the stone wheel to grind corn for island residents. The last millers, Thomas A.H. and Jesse C. Taft, found that the mill could not compete with the rolling mills in the west that produced cheaper steel-ground meal and flour.
The millers made their profits by keeping a small percentage of the grain they milled for customers and re-selling it. The mill eventually closed as a commercial enterprise due to the downturn in business.
When the mill first opened, its primary use was to provide stoneground corn to feed cattle and horses.
For human consumption, the millers also ground a special variety of corn called Rhode Island white flint, originally obtained from the local Indians to make jonnycake meal. A small amount of this corn is still grown and stone-ground at Rhode Island mills throughout the state for this purpose.
The original windmill used state-of-the-art technology for its time when it was constructed. The technique for stone-grinding wheat and corn has not changed much to this day.
Not many modern mechanical devices can stand the test of time and boast more than two centuries of unsurpassed usefulness. Although the rolling-steel grinding mills that forced the windmill out of business were cheaper, it does not mean they were better. Health food stores and proponents of organic diets strongly support the nutritional advantages of stoneground grains.
After closing its doors in 1896, the windmill stood neglected until 1904.
Then, a group of ladies from Philadelphia – who summered in Jamestown – took interest in the aging relic and bought it from the town.
They repaired the damage wrought by vandals and weather, and again made the mill operable. Despite the neglect, much of the structure and machinery was intact, and craftsmen were able to restore the windmill to close to its original condition.
In 1912, the ladies who restored the structure turned the mill over to the newly formed Jamestown Historical Society. The members adopted a drawing of the mill for the organization’s corporate seal and assumed responsibility for its upkeep, which includes considerable maintenance to keep it operable.
Two Jamestown Historical Society members, sisters Nan Thompson and Margaret Evans, established a fund devoted to mill upkeep in 1987. Major restorations were completed in 1982 and 2000-2001, with additional grants from the Champlin Foundations, the Rhode Island Foundation, other local foundations and donations from Jamestown residents.
Today, a grant from the Philadelphia Foundation provides the $5,000 for the maintenance budget to keep the windmill in tip-top shape. Jamestown donors provide any additional funds that are occasionally needed.
Because the windmill has a fancied resemblance to a countryman’s linen smock, it is known as a “smock mill.” The smock was a common accoutrement throughout southern New England in its day.
The Jamestown Windmill is a three-story octagonal structure with a domed cap – or bonnet – that can be turned. The bonnet carries the wind shaft and the arms, also known as sweeps. The original framework of the mill is of hand-hewn chestnut timbers that are shingled on the outside.
The 540 square feet of sail on the four arms turn the 3,500-pound runner stone used to grind grain. The Jamestown Windmill is believed to be the third mill used by the early settlers of the island.
Every summer, the mill is open for visitors from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. A docent is available to answer any questions and hand out literature.
Visitors can embark on selfguided tours and see the inner workings of the mill at their leisure. They can also enjoy the spectacular views of the pastoral settings surrounding the structure from the windows on the second and third floors.
Although admission is free, donations to the preservation of the mill are welcomed.