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Windmill De Zwaan more than just a symbol of Holland City’s roots

Reassembled in U.S. as a tower mill forty years ago

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

HOLLAND, Michigan – A window on the history and culture of the Netherlands. When folks in the Western Michigan City of Holland, founded by 1840s Dutch immigrants, were looking in the 1960s for a symbol to delineate their collective roots their thoughts turned to bringing over a working windmill. Organizers surmounted all sorts of obstacles in realizing their plan. Windmill De Zwaan, aptly located on Windmill Island, recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its rededication on Michigan soil.

De Zwaan which first was erected in Zaandam, near Amsterdam, in 1776, since has become more than a symbol of identity for the Western Michigan town. It hardly would be an exaggeration to suggest that the windmill has become larger than life. Millions have visited the towering, monumental structure and many local citizens owe the start of their career to Windmill Island and its unique heritage transplant.

As part of the anniversary program, employees who worked on Windmill Island since the park opened to tourists in 1965, recently came together for a reunion where they reminisced and made video tapes about their experiences. Among the more than 200 former ‘windmill islanders’ and their families, was Holland City Mayor Al McGeehan who as a Hope College student 40 years ago welcomed visitors as an announcer. Now the de facto Windmill Island mayor as well, McGeehan still remembers his lines from forty years ago. More importantly, McGeehan remains a supporter of the island park and wants to continue to build on its tradition. The addition of the banquet facility was an example of an expanding use for the park.

Only one of its kind

Another former ‘windmill islander’ is Maynard Schrotenboer who for two years served as De Zwaan’s first American miller. Schrotenboer whose family has its roots in Overijssel, received his grain mill training from Dutch millwright Dieks Medendorp. He helped his brother Delwin, the general contrctor, in 1964-1965 reconstruct De Zwaan and then was taught how the gears and the millstones operated, and how to set the sails and adjust them for wind conditions. Schrotenboer, who retired as a police detective, still prides himself holding down the only job of its kind in the United States at the time.

De Zwaan’s American years unfortunately were not spared accidents. Schrotenboer recalls the April 10, 1965, dedication when a piece of wood broke loose from the mill and nearly struck Michigan Gov. George Romney and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. They were pulling on a rope attached to a piece of wood symbolizing the release of the brake on the mill. Things went wrong when they brought down the timber instead. Years later, mill maintenance contractor Terbeek fell 35 feet to his death.

The windmill also at times evoked strong memories from visitors. One gentleman who visited the mill annually, told staff members how he hid in a windmill as a boy in the Netherlands during World War II. With the Nazis looking for him, he climbed into the mill and hid between the millstones for several hours. Now an Indiana resident, the man would visit the mill and just sit down to relax and in subsequent years told the windmill guides his story.


When Holland’s Willard Wichers, who during WWII became the U.S. director of the Netherlands Information Bureau, and who later founded Holland Museum, along with fellow resident Carter Brown were looking for a symbol to embody the city’s identity, their thoughts turned to a windmill. But following WWII when so many of these monumental heritage structures had sustained serious damage, the Dutch authorities no longer were selling any of them. Wichers and his group overcame all these stumbling blocks by selecting heavily damaged mill De Zwaan, then located at the Brabant town of Vinkel and sitting on a mound. The mill had been in the crossfire of three local agencies who could not agree on a suitable course of action. Instead, the Dutch government then decided to sell it to Wichers.

In October 1964, De Zwaan arrived aboard the Prins Willem van Oranje at the Muskegon harbour where it was unloaded and trucked to Holland to an island site, reclaimed from a swamp. There it again became a tower mill. Since then, De Zwaan for many years on average has ground nine tons of grain during the tourist season. Since the city has been looking for another miller, the challenge to take up his first trade again has grown on Schrotenboer.

Windmill Island also features a canal with a typically Dutch drawbridge as well as a 1631 gabled farmstead and a number of wood-frame Zaandam houses.