Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 537:
VICTORIA "DUTCH" WINDMILL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 537.

Today, a windmill blows Texas into the 21st century. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1845 the United States annexed a sovereign independent nation. That nation was Texas. We became a state. Many Americans didn't like the idea. After all, Texas was a nation of foreigners -- mostly new immigrants from Northern Europe.

One of those immigrants was F.G. Witte. Just about the time we became a state, Witte imported a pair of millstones from Europe. They were four feet in diameter and a foot thick. They came by ship -- then rode an oxcart to Goliad County. There, Witte set up the first windmill in Texas.

The mill stood about 20 feet high, and it ground corn for over a decade. Witte could handle 500 pounds of grain a week, but only when the wind was right.

Twenty-five years later, in 1870, two more German immigrants bought Witte's mill and rebuilt it. Their new mill was much fancier, but it still used Witte's old grinding stones.

They built what we call a Dutch mill. It stood 35 feet high with 20-foot sails. The sails of a Dutch mill ride on a rotating turret with a long handle that reaches the ground. That way you can turn the top of the mill so it always faces into the wind. The lower part of the building is stationary.

But Texas isn't Holland. When European technology crossed the ocean, it always mutated. Holland's mills were solid masonry structures. This mill was made of wood. Big as it was, you could still break it down and move it.

The rotating turret in this mill didn't turn very smoothly. The mill also took a beating in high winds. So the new owners strengthened it. Then they moved it -- maybe more than once -- looking for steadier winds.

The mill ground cornmeal for many years. Finally, by the turn of the century, it sat idle -- replaced by modern machines. Then, in 1935, the ladies of the Victoria Morning Study Club arranged to move it one last time. They took it into Victoria, Texas. There it's been a tourist attraction ever since.

And what an oddity it is! This is a medieval technology, suddenly come to a Stone Age land. It seems so out of place. Yet this was one of our first steps on the road to the 21st century. We telescoped that road into just 150 years.

At first you think it must be a kitchy restaurant. But this is nothing of the kind. This very real windmill is one quick step in the explosive rise of the modern West. It shows us a blink of 19th-century change in a way no textbook ever could.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


This episode is based on American Society of Mechanical Engineers information. On May 8, 1991, "The Old Windpower Grist Mill" in Victoria, Texas was designated as an ASME Landmark. The cognizant organizations are the ASME Region X Section, and the National ASME History and Heritage Committee.



Image courtesy of ASME

The Victoria windmill, incorporating parts from Texas's first windmill


Image courtesy of ASME

Some of the gearing in the Victoria mill


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode