Inside a Windmill in Zaanse Schans near Amsterdam

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind
– The Windmills of Your Mind
(Michel Legrand, English lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman)

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Interesting that such a beautiful song could be inspired by something so utilitarian.

In Zaanse Schans, just outside Amsterdam, one can find well-preserved windmills from the 1600’s still spinning, like “ever-spinning reels.” Though the site of the sails “whirling silently in space” looks spectacular, they served as sawmills, paint mills, oil mills and other industrial duties.

The windmills were an integral part of the Dutch Golden Age when it gained preeminence in industry, trade, military and the arts. The Milkmaid, a masterpiece of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, comes from the same period, and to me captures the same essence of “beauty in industry.”

They are open-air museums, these windmills, each with a name. De Kat (The Cat), the rightmost in the above photo, is one of the most interesting.

The cap of the windmill can be turned so that the sails face the wind. Up close, those sails are huge.

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A series of gears transforms the rotation of the sails into rotating the machines inside the mill. These gears are made of wood, but are able to withstand the force of the turning sails.

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De Kat grinds pigments for use in paint. The pigments are stored in different containers.

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From the platform on the roof one can see other windmills, like De Gekroonde Peolenburg (The Crowned Poelenburg), a sawmill.

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Het Jonge Schaap (The Young Sheep) is another sawmill.

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At its peak, there were more than 600 windmills in Zaanse Schans. Their use declined during the industrial revolution when steam from coal became more common. Windmills are making a comeback with the rising interest in renewable energy, but of course using modern materials and technology.

Seeing these old wooden windmills in action makes one admire the ingenuity of their creators, and gives a glimpse of the Dutch countryside hundreds of years ago, with hundreds of rotating X’s dotting the landscape.

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Zaanse Schans is certainly worth a visit, if only for the windmills. I hope they continue spinning, and, who knows, their circling sails might inspire another beautiful song.

(More info on the windmills at Zaanse Schans.)

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