You Spin Me ‘Round

When Maura Doyle was young in the 1970s, each spring she and her three brothers would drive with their parents to open their vacation home on Shelter Island. And each year they would eagerly await their first sighting of a majestic windmill at the top of a sloping field. “We made bets on how many arms would be missing,” she said. Sometimes it would be only one, sometimes more, though at that time the owners, Andrew and Alice Fiske, faithfully replaced the sails—the correct name for the arms—each summer.

Since then the Fiskes died and the windmill lost all four of its sails. But the property on which it stands, Sylvester Manor, has been operating since 2009 as a nonprofit educational farm. Serendipitously, Doyle is the organization’s historic preservation coordinator. “We have big dreams and plans for that windmill,” she said, including putting the sails back up and perhaps even using it again if the farm starts growing grain.

At any given time in the 1800s there were perhaps 20 windmills on Long Island, said Robert J. Hefner, director of historic services for the Village of East Hampton and author of The Windmills of Long Island. By 1900, steam power had largely replaced wind power and the mighty windmills built in the 18th and 19th centuries were no longer needed to grind grain or saw lumber. The windmill on Shelter Island is one of 11 such structures remaining on the East End, the largest cluster in one area anywhere in the United States. Built in a preindustrial age for utilitarian purposes and preserved now for aesthetic and historic reasons, its history parallels that of the others around Long Island. “They were saved mainly because wealthy people liked them and put them on their land,” said Hugh King, the historic site manager for the Village of East Hampton, which owns and maintains three windmills.

According to Hefner, the windmills have generally been well-preserved. “The owners of all the windmills are taking pretty good care of them,” Hefner said. “They’re important as historic artifacts, as very unusual documents of wooden technology, and people see them as part of the identity of where they live.”

In some cases there is a personal connection to their histories. That is the case for Charlie Corwith, whose great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Corwith, purchased a mill around 1800 in Sag Harbor and transported it to Water Mill.

For the past decade or so, Corwith has been president of the Water Mill Village Improvement Association, which now owns and cares for the windmill. It stands on the village green, a familiar landmark for anyone driving on Montauk Highway.

His ancestor had the mill disassembled before carting it to Water Mill, where he added a second set of grinding stones so it could switch between corn and wheat without having to be cleaned each time. The family stopped milling in 1887. A year later the mill was sold to a couple of New York businessmen who had built a large mansion nearby that cut off the prevailing winds from Mecox Bay, making the mill useless except as a beautiful artifact. It changed ownership a few times after that—including briefly back into Corwith hands—but became run down until a community effort to restore it began in 1985. It is now open during the summer and available for tours at other times. “We’re talking about making it turn again, maybe this summer,” Corwith said.

Four of the eleven East End windmills are privately owned, but five others, besides the two already mentioned, are open to the public. A literary history distinguishes the mill on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton. It was built between 1712 and 1714, according to The Story of the College Windmill (An Affectionate History), a booklet by Edward C. Glanz. Originally called the Windmill Lane Mill, it was located in the heart of Southampton Village, Glanz wrote. In 1890, it became one of what he called Long Island’s “walking windmills,” when it was taken to its present home, then an estate owned by a wealthy financier who let his daughter use the windmill as a playhouse. Later, the property became a resort and the windmill a guesthouse. It was during that period, in the summer of 1957, that Tennessee Williams lived there and started writing an experimental one-act play, The Day on Which a Man Dies, thought to be about his friend Jackson Pollock.

The Beebee Windmill in Bridgehampton has a different claim to fame. Mary Pickford used it as a backdrop in her 1916 movie Hulda from Holland. Another peripatetic windmill, it started life in Sag Harbor in 1820 before being moved four times, finally to the John E. Berwind Village Green at the corner of Ocean and Hildreth roads. It recently underwent a name change when a final “e” was discovered on the tombstones of the original owners, said Julie Greene, curator and archivist of the Bridgehampton Historical Society, which gives tours of the windmill.

The three windmills that belong to the Village of East Hampton are easily accessible. The Pantigo Windmill is part of a grouping of historic buildings near Guild Hall. Built in 1804 in East Hampton, it was purchased in 1917 by Gustav Buek, who moved it to the site of his 17th century house, known as Home Sweet Home (it is now a museum). The Gardiner Mill, also built in 1804, is a short walk away and is open by appointment. At the northern end of the village stands the 1806 Hook Mill which is still functional.

These windmills are part of our region’s visual iconography, but they are more than that, said Richard Baxter, historic restoration contractor and partner in Strada Baxter Design/Build in Amagansett. Baxter has worked on 6 of the 11 East End windmills and said “they’re beautiful pieces of functional architecture” that offer a good way to teach history. In 1804, when the Pantigo and Gardiner mills were built, “Thomas Jefferson was president, Lewis and Clark were just starting out on their westward journey, Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor and Beethoven was still alive and writing.” Meanwhile, “this little rural area on Long Island was pretty isolated but creating beautiful machines like that.”

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.