The symbol of the Netherlands keeps turning: Working windmills in one of the oldest industrial areas in the world

Katerina Bulovska
Windmills, Zaanse Schans. By Peter K Burian – CC BY-SA 4.0

Bicycles, tulip fields, wooden clogs and windmills. We can only be in the Netherlands, a country known for its canals, art history, and of course those deliciously sticky syrup pastries called stroopwafel.

This small but vibrant European country also has an important maritime history. Throughout the 1600s, the Dutch navy was arguably the most powerful in the world: a mighty fleet that was made possible by the humble windmill.

Harnessing the power of the wind allowed the Dutch to cut lumber into the planks and posts needed for shipbuilding much faster and more efficiently than their naval competitors.

During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century there were more than 600 wind-powered sawmills in the Zaan River district, making it one of the oldest industrial areas in the world.

It was in this period that windmills became the central motif for many painters and a popular object in Dutch landscape paintings, forever cementing the notion of the Netherlands as “the land of windmills.”

Windmills of the Zaanse Schans. Murdockcrc. CC BY 3.0

Among these artists was the great master Rembrandt, who produced perhaps the most famous windmill painting, The Mill, which is displayed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

One of the best places to experience authentic working windmills and traditional green-painted wooden houses is the picturesque neighborhood of Zaanse Schans.

Many of these beautifully preserved buildings were renovated and transported to Zaanse Schans in the 1960s as part of a national heritage project.

Once the industrial heartland of the Dutch Republic, today this popular tourist destination is a living museum.

Windmills, Zaanse Schans. Peter K Burian. CC BY-SA 4.0

During the First Industrial Revolution, wind-powered factories in the Zaan worked on materials brought from Amsterdam, one of the most important ports in the world at that time, producing flour, cocoa powder, machine-sawn wood, paper, ground spices, seed oils, dyes and many other items.

By harnessing the power of nature, production dramatically increased and the Zaan region became one of the richest in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It did not, however, lose its charm. In 1871, the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet visited Zaanse Schans and painted 24 artworks of the area.

Impressed by its beauty, in a letter to his friend he wrote: “There is enough here to paint for an entire lifetime.”

Windmill De Huisman in 2006

Sadly, as windmills were slowly made obsolete by the advent of more advanced machinery, many of the structures so admired by Monet were destroyed or left in disrepair.

In 1961, an organisation was formed with the aim of creating “a typical Zaans residential area,” as it would have looked in the mid-19th century.

Houses and other buildings from around the Zaan region were transported to Zaanse Schans by road and water, where they were painstakingly renovated and rebuilt.

With its inhabited wooden houses, farmsteads, fields, and working windmills, the village offers a unique glimpse into Dutch culture and history.

The characteristically Dutch village park now has eight working windmills dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Windmill De Kat in 2007. I, CrazyPhunk. CC BY-SA 3.0

The windmill named “De Kat” (The Cat) is the oldest functioning windmill in the world. It was built in 1646, damaged by a fire in 1782, and restored in the 1970s.

Originally De Kat produced oil for painting. Nowadays, with the power of the wind, it makes paint. The granite stones turn limestone into a fine powder that is mixed with pigments in order to get the desired color.

Another windmill that functions as a factory is “De Huisman” (The Houseman). In the past, the windmill ground mustard seeds and tobacco, but today only produces mustard.

The windmills “De Os”( The Ox) and “De Bonte Hen” (The Spotted Hen) still press seeds to produce oil.

Windmill Het Jonge Schaap. Quistnix. CC BY-SA 2.5

The traditional wind-powered sawmills that can be seen operating in the village are “De Gekroonde Poelenburg” (The Crowned Poelenburg), “Het Jonge Schaap” (The Young Sheep) and “Het Klaverblad”(The Cloverleaf).

It is free to wander around the neighborhood, where many of the houses are owned by ordinary families, however there is a fee to take a tour inside the mills.

Zaanse Schans also has a several living history museums, allowing visitors to get a flavor of what life was like during the region’s wind-powered heyday.

Located not far from Amsterdam, one of the most Dutch ways to visit this unique historic area is to catch the small Zaanferry cruise boat from the central train station.

Outdoor Museum Zaanse Schans, Zaanstad, Province of North-Holland, the Netherlands. Zairon. CC BY-SA 4.0

Windmills are of great importance for the Dutch people and there is even a National Windmill Day, which takes place every year on the second weekend in May.

Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum Village Life From the 18th Century

During this national holiday, all the windmills in the country are decorated with flags and colorful flowers. It is the most majestic period of the year to visit Zaanse Schans.