Friday, May 29, 2015

Sails before the wind

Coastal windmills of North Carolina

"The Beach at Beaufort Harbor, North Carolina" from John L. Stoddard, Scenic America, c. 1895.
By John B. Green III

It seems incredible today, but there was once a time when windmills were nearly as common along the coast of North Carolina as they were in Holland.  Used primarily as grist mills to grind corn or wheat into meal or flour, they numbered in the hundreds and could be found wherever unimpeded access to reliable winds existed.  They were the only practical type of mill along the outermost coastal plain and the barrier islands where broad estuaries and low elevations usually precluded the erection of mill-dams and water-powered mills

W.D. Murray mill near Fairfield, Hyde County, postcard ca. 1910.

Documents and photographs indicate that the predominant type of windmill erected in coastal North Carolina was the "post" mill.  In a post mill the entire mill structure housing the machinery rotated around a large, heavily braced central post.  A tail pole extending downward from the mill and terminating in a wheel could be pushed by the miller around a track to change the orientation of the mill to match the prevailing winds.

Map showing windmill sites in coastal North Carolina prior to 1900, from Tucker R. Littleton, "When Windmills Whirled on the Tar Heel Coast," The State, October 1980.

So, how many windmills were there and where were they located?  The late Onslow County historian Tucker R. Littleton documented one hundred and fifty-five windmills existing in coastal North Carolina between 1748 and 1900!  Carteret County led the list with 65 documented windmills with the rest being found from Brunswick County in the south to Currituck County in the north and as far inland as the towns of Washington and New Bern.  And yet, by 1920 the coast's windmills were gone.  By the time Littleton conducted his research in 1979 and 1980 he could find few who remembered the windmills and many who expressed outright disbelief that such mills had ever existed.  What happened?

Windmill near Morehead City, Carteret County, postcard ca. 1910.

The downfall of coastal North Carolina's windmills came about through changing technology.  Beginning in the late 19th century with the introduction of small steam-powered grist mills and continuing into the early 20th century with the arrival of portable gasoline-powered milling equipment, the old wind-powered mills were gradually abandoned. Dismantled or simply left to fall apart, they soon disappeared from the windswept landscape they had dominated for nearly 200 years.