Discover A Touch Of Old Holland At Windmill Island

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August 31, 2009

You can experience a little bit of Old World Europe in southwest Michigan with a visit to Windmill Island! Here you can tour a magnificent 240 year old working Dutch windmill, enjoy the beauty of over 150,000 tulips in bloom in the spring, tour an exact replica of a 14th century wayside inn, browse through a large selection of souvenirs, and even buy yourself a pair of wooden shoes!

Windmill Island is a beautiful 36 acre oasis within the city of Holland, Michigan, comprised of manicured gardens, costumed guides, and other attractions to delight visitors of all ages.

Windmill flowers webYour first stop on a visit to Windmill Island should be the Posthouse, an exact architectural reconstruction of a 14th century Dutch wayside inn. The original stood near Ruinen, in the province of Drenthe. Wayside inns such as this provided weary travelers with food and shelter for centuries. Meals and lodging were available in the main part of the building, while the back part was a stable for horses. A display in the Posthouse’s great room shows life in an old time wayside inn.

At Windmill Island’s Posthouse, visitors can see a reproduction of an inn’s Great Room, and watch a 12 minute presentation about windmills, the Netherlands, and the park’s own windmill, De Zwaan.

The centerpiece of Windmill Island is the beautiful old windmill, named De Zwaan, which dates back to the 1760s. The 125 foot tall authentic Dutch windmill reflects the Dutch heritage of many of the earliest settlers in Holland, Michigan. Brought from the Netherlands in 1964, this is the only original Dutch windmill exported to America. It is still a working windmill producing stone ground flour, which is for sale at Windmill Island.

Visitors can take a guided tour of the old windmill to learn about its history and operation. Our tour guide was a delightful young lady dressed in authentic Dutch girl costume. One note here, the tour includes walking up a series of wooden stairways, so those with physical challenges may not be able to go to the top of the windmill.

Since the Netherlands are below sea level, windmills were first introduced to pump out water and control flooding. However, the resourceful Dutch people also used them to grind flour, and as signaling devices. By decorating the blades of a windmill with different colored banners, they could notify their neighbors of births, deaths, and other important community events.

Windmill Island’s De Zwaan (meaning graceful bird) has a colorful history. The windmill was used as a lookout during World War II, and a set of old windmill blades on display outside show bullet holes from being strafed by a German fighter plane.

In 1964, the City of Holland purchased the windmill from a retired miller in the town of Vinkel, in the province of Noord Brabant in the Netherlands. The windmill was shipped from the Netherlands to the port of Muskegon, Michigan on the ship Prins Willem van Oranje and was brought by truck from Muskegon to its present location on Windmill Island. Reconstruction of the mill began in 1964, and the park opened in April of 1965.

Carousel horse webKids will love Windmill Island’s marvelous antique carousel, featuring hand-carved and painted wooden horses. The century old carousel was imported from the Netherlands in 1971. The carousel was carefully restored during the winter of 2002-2003 and features sixteen painted canvas ceiling panels that feature angels, birds, and small animals.

The carousel’s upper rotating panels are decorated with windmills and vignettes of Dutch life. The lower base panels give a panoramic view of a Dutch landscape that moves from a fishing harbor out to sea, and includes dikes, a small village, and tulip fields. Over 1,000 hours of labor went into the restoration, which was done by local artist Lisa Freeman. The carousel was well loved by the young and old alike at its former home of East Groningen, and now folks in the United States can appreciate it just as much. While only children can ride the carousel, adults seem to love to just watch the animals go around and tap their toes to its music, which is played from a paper roll.

Music lovers will also appreciate the famous “The Four Columns,” 69 key metal organ built in 1928 that once filled the streets of Breda, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam with music. Built by famous organ maker Carl Frel, the beautiful organ was given to the City of Holland by the City of Amsterdam in 1947 in gratitude for the role the United States played in liberating Holland from the Nazis during World War II. We enjoyed listening as a young woman in Dutch clothing played the organ for us.  

My favorite exhibit at Windmill Island was Little Netherlands. Housed in a building whose exterior is an authentic reproduction of a typical dwelling on the colorful Island of Markden in the Zuiderzee, the display features hundreds of miniature figures, buildings, and operating models depicting life in old Holland. Years of research and handwork went into the creation of this amazing Lilliputian world.

During the spring and summer, Windmill Islands’ gardens are alive with color, and boys and girls dressed in folk costumes and wooden shoes perform the old-time klompen dance to entertain visitors.

 When you think you’ve seen it all and you’re all done, you’re wrong. Your visit to Windmill Island is not complete until you browse through the gift shop, where you will find souvenirs including beautiful authentic Delftware porcelain, delicious fudge, and even colorfully decorated wooden shoes. And on a hot day, the ice cream is especially good!

Windmill Island is located at 1 Lincoln Avenue in Holland, just a few blocks off U.S. Highway 31, and is open daily from April to early October. Admission is $7.50 for adults, and $4.50 for youth ages 5 to 15. While the parking lot at Windmill Island can accommodate tour buses and RVs, if it was busy it might be hard to maneuver about, and the streets between U.S. 31 and Windmill Island are busy and narrow. We left our bus elsewhere and drove in with our dinghy.

For more information on Windmill Island, call (888-535-5792) toll free, or e-mail [email protected].

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  4. langenhuijzen RICK

    hello everybody, i am from HOLLAND, born and living in the village VINKEL.
    this windmill , the zwaan did stand in our village till 1964, from that time he was moving to Michigan. he have a verry nice place to stand there.
    i am looking for someone who can send me pictures from this windmill and better maybe film. i would be verry greatfull when someone can send me that.
    If you can help me send me a letter to my mail adress([email protected]
    thanks for helping and manny greatings from holland. RICK

  5. Alice Wildermuth

    Sounds wonderful! I haven’t been to Holland, MI since I was a kid, many, many years ago! But, if you’re into windmills and in Illinois, stop off in Fulton, IL, on the Mississippi river to see the one there, It was imported in pieces from the Netherlands and re-assembled by Dutch workers. They have a tulip festival in May, also. Pella, Iowa, also is a Dutch town with Dutch buildings, restaurants and a tulip festival.

  6. Merrie Rancourt

    I’ve been to this site many times because I am a native Michigander, although I live in Colorado now.

    Even better than the Windmill (in my mind) is the stone ground flour that you can purchase along with a cookbook for using it. It has a great flavor! The later in the year you go, the less likely it is that you can purchase it and their store is not on line. The woman in charge of grinding the flour (I can’t remember her job title) was trained and is certified by the Guild in the Netherlands.

    If you like crowds, go during the Tulip Festival. Otherwise, go the week before or after to see them in full bloom. The people who sell the bulbs can tell you how to grow them in your home state. Quite a lot of work to do it here in Colorado, but I think I’m going to try next year. 🙂

  7. I spent a lot of time in Europe as a kid and young adult and one of my favorite places was the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Holland, the windmills, the tulips . . the whole thing. Clean, beautiful, majestic. The article has just convinced me that our first trip to Michigan needs to be Windmill Island! Great article – thanks!