The thing that sets the Hamptons apart from any other resort in the United States is the remarkable collection of historic old cedar-shingle windmills that sit prominently on lawns throughout the communities. There are 11 windmills. Other windmills exist elsewhere. But our collection of them is the largest in America.
As a result of this, some visitors coming to the Hamptons do not consider they are really here until they see the first of them. It sits on a hill in Shinnecock. Playwright Tennessee Williams stayed in it when he taught a course at Southampton College one summer. The next is on the village triangle in Water Mill. And after that, you see more and more of them as you drive through Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Wainscott, East Hampton (it has three on Main Street), Amagansett and Montauk. Eleven all together.
There has always been a controversy about which communities comprise the Hamptons. It might include the North Fork. It might include Shelter Island. But because, no matter where you come out from the city, there are five major communities you go through before you get to see the first windmill at Shinnecock. Specifically, Westhampton Beach is one of them. And so it seems to not be a Hampton to those folks.
On July 7, an ancient windmill appeared on the Great Lawn at the entrance to that town. It came — paraded down through Main Street actually — from a part of a private property in that Village’s eastern estate section where it had sat bladeless and unnoticed as a sort of tower for the last half century. Now it has been brought into town because the new owners of that estate (they paid $4 million) were unable to incorporate the windmill into their new construction. The windmill didn’t “fit in” to their plans. So they donated it to the village.
But make no mistake. This windmill is authentic. And when fully restored, it will be bigger than any other one further east, and so, indeed and most definitely, Westhampton Beach will replace Shinnecock as the gateway, the first official village in the Hamptons. It will also be a remarkable historic centerpiece on the Great Lawn at the entrance to town where, today, it has been set up.
And yet, there are important difference between this windmill, called the Gov. John Adams Dix Windmill, and any of the other 10 windmills further on. The others were all built between 1713 and 1820. This one was not built until two further generations had died, in 1870. The others were all accessory farm buildings with two heavy giant circular stones inside, that when turned by a gear powered by the turning blades, could rub together and grind corn or wheat into flour. Bagged, it would be sold for kitchen pantries in the saltbox homes of the early farmers and fishermen.
Instead, this Westhampton Beach mill was used to haul water from wells in the ground to a big water tank in the upper reaches of the mill. The water, when released into pipes throughout the house, now came down under pressure to provide — a wonder of the age in 1870 — running water and flush toilets.
The people who built these facilities — this predated municipal water works – were not farmers or fishermen. Those folks further east used outhouses. They were not very fancy people.
But here in Westhampton, in 1870, with the Long Island Rail Road completed, the rich members of the Manhattan social set built big summer mansions Out East. There were hundreds of mansions, all built near the ocean.
Imagine this! Flush toilets for the summer. Many built similar attached windmills. And for a long time, New Yorkers referred to the Westhampton area as “Windmill Town.”
A further clue to all this is the name of the person who built this particular summer home. John Adams Dix, a Manhattan banker, was elected governor of New York State in 1872. Dix is a Dutch name. This part of Westhampton Beach was a summer colony for fashionable people of Dutch heritage. Further east, New Yorkers of English heritage built their summer colonies. And they used small gasoline-powered engines to raise up their water. Why? Perhaps, having seen all the earlier windmills all around, they saw no point in building a new kind of windmill in 1870.
Think of it. Earlier, the Dutch built Nieuw Amsterdam. And the Dutch in Europe certainly know windmills!
The excitement of moving the Dix mill through downtown is told elsewhere in this publication as well as other publications. It does remind some of us of the last time a historic structure was moved with fanfare. That was back in the 1990s when the Big Duck, a 20-foot tall replica, was moved several miles from one part of Route 24A to another, returning it to its original spot in Flanders by the Peconic Bay from an earlier temporary location adjacent to a pony ride pasture on the northern border of the Sears Bellow Park in Hampton Bays.
Some reporters have also said that the Westhampton windmill today is the only one still standing from that era back in the 1870s. But that is not true. Simply turning the pages in our Behind The Hedges magazine will reveal that currently, in addition to this windmill just moved, there are many more, blade-less but attached to Westhampton mansions, for sale at the present time. They include one at 25 Seafield Lane for sale for $3.99 million, one at 32 Beach Lane for sale for $5.65 million and one at 15 Sunswyk for $3.44. Moved to the Great Lawn (it is a Great Lawn), with blades restored, they could be a whole forest of historic windmills from the social set era.
Think of that, Westhampton Beach.
Someday, I’m going to track down why the windmills further east were all built between 1713 and 1820 and then never after. Was it something to do with the advent of the steam engine in 1807? Was the soil in Westhampton too sandy for farms while the soil further east was rich loam, more amenable for agriculture? Maybe there was a really good windmill salesman who blew through town in those earlier days. I’m sure there’s an explanation.