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Dutch expert hopeful neglected Mennonite windmills can be restored

Gdansk area once had 300 windmills

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

HOORN, the Netherlands – The major landmarks of Mennonite colonies seem to be windmills, in certain places these buildings apparently dotted the landscape just like they did in the Netherlands at one time. The plight of these early facsimiles of Mennonite industrial production, one no longer required, has been one of abandonment and neglect. Much to the chagrin of Polish photographer Marek Opitz, who turned towards the land of windmills for help with the windmills in his own area.

The windmills in the Weichsel river delta near Gdansk were especially built by Dutch Mennonite colonists and their offspring. They settled in the flood prone marshland to eek out a living on the land where they built dikes and other drainage works. It is thought that about 200 windmill helped drain excess water. The Mennonites also may have constructed as many as 100 grain mills. Only a small number remain and most have been neglected for decades.

Through an international windmill society Marek Opitz got in touch with Dutch member Mark Zaal, who works for the Province of North Holland. The province already had an exchange program with the Gdansk area so the request for assistance with the preservation of the windmills should not surprise anyone. The province’s archeologist Gerald Alden asked windmill restoration expert and author Nico Jurgens for advice.

Jurgens meanwhile is doing some research on the windmill history in the Weichsel Delta which he reports may involve as many as 300 windmills of which the large majority has been gone long ago. Jurgens still has hope that it may be possible to identify the sites where the windmills once earned their keep. Historical charts and maps and topographical drawings may indicate where these structures were built. A drawing which shows the 1835 scenery around the village of Tiegenhof, for example, shows two windmills in the distance, both drainage mills.


In addition to the windmill ruins, some cemeteries are silent reminders of the area’s once vibrant Mennonite community. The area no long has any one who is familiar with the windmill culture, making it a challenge because restoration also demands that restorers know what materials to use, parts to make and install, and eventually to operate the finished structure.

Jurgens who has been involved with a similar project in the former Eastern Germany, remains hopeful that the Gdansk area at a certain point will have operational windmills again. But it will be a test of endurance to restore the buildings and to revive a culture that goes with it.