Until I visited Kinderdijk in the Netherlands this spring, I didn't really have a clear picture of what's meant by the old expression that "God made the Dutch and the Dutch made Holland."
In my mind, just images of flat seaside land marked into squares by roads, maybe a cutely-costumed boy with his thumb in the dike, ships passing by on canals above the level of the fields—and a lot of windmills.
And that's what Kinderdijk is famous for: A lot of windmills. Nineteen of them (once there were twenty) lined up at waterside, looking, well... Dutch.
But, as I learned on a shore excursion from my Viking cruise, they're not there just to look pretty; as recently as World War II, they were all that stood between that part of the Netherlands and the sea.
The story starts close to a thousand years ago, when people began venturing out into the peat bogs of the area to hunt and fish in summer when the water levels were low enough. Eventually, in the drier parts, settlers arrived to take advantage of the rich soil, building homes on the highest points. As more and more arrived, they began to dry out more land by building dikes.
But, as they discovered, dikes not only keep water out, they keep it in, and a new cycle of flooding developed. And so, in the 13th century the Dutch began a new era of managing the land and water by building a series of ditches and waterways to collect the water and guide it back into the rivers and ultimately the North Sea. Kinderdijk is the low point where the water was to exit.
That kind of work required a lot of work and cooperation, and the local ruler, Count Floris V of Holland, ordered the creation of cooperative 'water boards' to manage the work. Three were created in the Kinderdijk area, with two of them later merged; the two water boards still exist. Historically, the system of water boards is the foundation of Dutch democratic government.
Over the next centuries more work was done and more improvements made, but never quite enough to keep up with the subsiding soil and rising water. Eventually, the water boards developed a system of huge basins for surplus water. And that's where the windmills came in. Built in the early 1700s, they pumped water into the lower basin, and when it was filled into the upper basin; the water could also be released into irrigation canals when needed.
A family lived in each mill, farming the land around it, collecting fish from nets hung in the scoopwheel, and being responsible for keeping the mill in working condition and turning it to face the wind and start pumping when needed. Above, a 19th-century photo of a miller and his children.
In the 1860s, two steam-powered pumping plants were added to the system, eventually taking over from the windmills. In 1924, the steam plants were replaced by even more powerful diesel-powered pumps. And during World War II, when Nazi occupiers reserved all diesel fuel for their own use, the modern pumps were replaced by the still-preserved and ready-to-operate windmills.
Today, the area is a major tourism attraction, with thousands of visitors including many from cruise ships that pass nearby on the Rhine. The old steam pumping station has become a visitor education center.
Residents living in the mills (only one is open to visitors) have even begun to complain that the tourists are overwhelming their life.
And the windmills? They're still carefully maintained in working condition. They're not only a UNESCO World Heritage, they are also the only backup in case of a power failure that cuts off the now electrically-powered pumps. After nearly 300 years, they are still part of the Netherlands' struggle with the sea.
The Mills: Inside Story
The top section of each mill, above the brickwork, is mounted on wooden rollers that allow it to turn to take full advantage of the wind.
A long tailpiece connects the top to a track at the bottom; pushing the tailpiece turns the cap.
Inside the mill, spaces are quite small, especially when you consider that families of eight or more children were common. Lots of labor was needed, and infant mortality was high.
The kitchen served as a central area not only for cooking, but also for eating, carrying out various indoor chores and, during cold weather, for keeping warm by the fire.
No bedrooms as such; small sleeping nooks such as this were for the adults; children slept wherever they found space near the stove, especially in winter. Only the lower part of the building would be heated, to save on fuel. One of the upper stories would be used to hang and dry fish.