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Windmills of Nantucket – Rex Wailes

In 1929 Rex Wailes visited the island of Nantucket during his trip to the USA and Canada. This is his write-up of the history of windmills on the island:
Smock mill, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, USA – REXW-GPN-C-080
Although at present there is but one windmill on Nantucket, there have been a number of others, and records of some of these exist. During my brief visit to this most delightful spot I was afforded every opportunity by the Nantucket Historical Association, and at the Public Library to study the history of the Nantucket windmills, and to examine the sole survivor.

In 1672 one Peter Folger was appointed by the town of Nantucket to run a watermill erected in 1666 at Wesco (now Lily) Pond; for some reason unknown this was abandoned, and another worked by wind was erected in its place. Folger ran this mill also, his pay being two quarts for every bushel ground; but the subsequent history of the mill is unknown. There are also references to and pictures of windmills at Polpis built on the tops of houses, as can be found today in Majorca; but the five mills about which most is known are the four smock mills with pent roofs and tail poles which stood in line on the Popsquatchet (now Mill) Hills, and the Round Top Mill.
The four windmills which stood on the Popsquatchet Hills, Nantucket. Photograph by Rex Wailes of a painting in the Nantucket Historical Museum.
Of the four, the first was built in 1723 by Frederick Macy, who asserted that the design of it came to him in his dreams; it ran as late as 1820 and was then known as Barnabas Bunker’s Mill. After the Nantucket fire of 1836 the mill was purchased by the town to test the efficacy of gunpowder for demolishing buildings in order to prevent fire spreading. On 7th December 1837 the townsfolk all turned out and the school children were given a holiday to watch the experiment.  A keg of gunpowder was placed in the mill and fired with a train and fuse. On the explosion the mill rose bodily from its foundations and fell in upon itself, shattered into fragments without any scattering of burning pieces.

The next in order of building was the present mill built 1746, which will be referred to later on, and this was followed in 1759 by the “Spider Mill”, so called from its eight jib sails built in the Portuguese fashion. An eye witness account of its destruction makes interesting reading – “The first of these mills to come down was the “Spider Web”. It was purchased by Reuben Coffin, Oliver C Gardner and one or two others, sawed in halves from top to bottom, a rope fastened to the plate and the east half pulled down leaving the great shaft still hanging aloft. The rope was then fastened to the west half and perhaps fifty or sixty men or boys were swaying upon it, when it parted, and the whole line of them were piled up in the valley below. A strong new hawser was then procured, and after much tugging the edifice came thundering down, breaking boarding and light joists in the kindling wood. It was then decided to blow up the shaft. Your correspondent was despatched to the store of Eben Tallant, Old North Warf, for a pound of powder. A two-inch auger hole was bored in the centre of the shaft, the iron bands knocked off the ends, a charge of powder placed in the hole, a plug with a score in the side filled with powder, shavings placed in the top and lighted. There was a heavy explosion, and the plug was thrown to a great height in the air and the long shaft of solid oak was laid open from end to end.” (Nantucket Enquirer and Mirror, July 10 1880. “Reminiscences”).

Next came the “Red Mill” so called from the colour it was painted; built in 1770 it worked until it was destroyed by lightening in 1867. The last gristmill to be built stood apart from the rest; it was of the Rhode Island type, shingle covered, with a circular cap and a 12ft dia. wheel for winding. Built in 1802 it ran until it was dismantled in 1873, and was known as the “Round Top Mill”.
Round Top Mill, built in 1802 in Nantucket, Mass (site now a cemetery)
The “Old Mill”, as the existing mill is called was built by Nathan Wilbur, a Nantucket sailor; it had a grinding capacity of 10 bushels per hour and was worked until 1892. In 1897 it was bought at auction by Miss Caroline French of Boston for $850 (about £170) and presented by her to the Nantucket Historical Association, by whom it is now used as an overflow museum in the summer, an admission of 10c being charged.
The Old Mill at Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA – REXW-IMG-05-245
It is a smock mill having three floors, and is covered with unpainted white oak shingles, with a gauge of 5½” held with hickory pins; it rests on rough stones about 10” off the ground. It is picked out in Indian red, all the doors, the shutters, and the sails being thus painted; there are no glazed windows and the shutters are held inside by twisted wrought iron hooks.
Gearing in the Old Mill at Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA – REXW-IMG-05-244 
There are four single anticlockwise common sails. The tailpole is of spruce and has a cartwheel at the bottom. The date 1746 is on a stone below the step in front of the door. No sack hoist is provided, the sacks were loaded in and out direct from the stone floor, and another feature strange to British practice is the provision of stairs instead of ladders between all floors. The upright shaft drives the stones direct; it is of oak as far as the hopper, and below this of iron. The singe pair of stones are on the first floor (called the second floor in America).

The old mill is still working and a visitor attraction today – you can find out more on their website