Grist mills (or wind grist mills), grinding mills, flour mills, Dutch mills, and custom mills are all terms used to describe the oldest mills in Illinois. For consistency, we will use the term custom windmill, which is so named for two reasons: the builder (the millwright) will construct a windmill for a specific person in a certain location. Because the type of windmill built depends on the client, there are several types of custom windmills. Some pump water, irrigate crops, saw lumber, or grind. Depending on the location, the windmills may be tall or short. Depending on how much work they need to perform, they could be larger or smaller.
The other reason is that most windmills in Illinois were designed and used specifically for large-scale “custom” wheat and corn grinding jobs to meet the demand of its surrounding population. Before the twentieth century, it was not possible to buy any kind of prepackaged baked goods; everything was made from scratch, including the flour and cornmeal used in hundreds of baking recipes. With wheat and corn as Illinois’ most profitable crops, custom mills were used for grinding.
To the author’s knowledge, Native Americans did not harness the wind’s kinetic energy for machines, but they did have a very thorough knowledge of the land and its weather patterns. It was from this knowledge, which the natives undoubtedly bestowed upon French settlers when they formed the Illini Confederacy, that the French created settlements and built windmills across the southern portion of what is now Illinois.
Though the French were forced to turn their territory over to the British after defeat in the French and Indian War, a heavy French influence continued in frontier Illinois. The earliest windmill recorded in Illinois history was built near Peoria in 1691. It is likely that this was either a French-style post mill or a small stone tower mill. The details of its construction are unavailable; however, we do know plenty about one of its owners. In 1773, the windmill was sold to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the man credited with founding Chicago in 1779.
Stone tower French windmills were built at other early settlements, including Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres, throughout the 1700s. Sadly, there are no remains of these mills today, and there is little information about them.
After the Land Ordinance was passed under the Articles of Confederation, Americans began to settle the Northwest Territory. Illinois’ population continued to expand after achieving statehood in 1818. Illinois was also a refuge for runaway slaves (in fact, water mills were used as “stations” along the underground railroad, including the Graue Mill).
As the population continued to grow, towns were planned along rivers so that water mills could be constructed. Around this time, milling laws were also passed in Illinois, requiring millers to take customers on a “first come, first served” basis, and setting standards for millers’ tolls. Instead of money, millers would be allowed to keep from each customer as payment:
1/8 of ground and bolted* wheat, rye, and other grain
1/7 of ground (not bolted) corn, oats, barley, and buckwheat
1/8 of ground (not bolted) malt and chopping grain (feed)
*Bolted means separated and bagged. Wheat, for example, produces grades of fine flour and coarse bran. Mills were equipped with machines that performed the task of separating the ground product for bagging, from which the miller’s toll was received.
In the 1840s, political unrest, economic depression, and buckwheat crop failure drove millions of Germans to America and, particularly, to Illinois where land was abundant—and cheap, at just $1.25 per acre. At about the same time, railroads began connecting towns in the state and, eventually, the nation. For the first time, the products of Illinois farmers could be shipped to any other part of the country.
With these factors, custom windmills began to appear in the prairie state. Henry Emminga of Ostfriesland, Germany was among the first; he built a ground-sailing grist mill near Golden, IL. Years later, realizing his mill needed more power, he turned it into a stage mill by rebuilding it atop some frame buildings. This raised the sails by about ten feet, allowing them to catch the wind over the height of crops, buildings, and other obstructions. The new space on the first floor was used for storage, shipping, and receiving. This design would be followed by all millwrights to come.
Even though 1,800 mills (turned by animals, water, wind, steam, or by hand) once operated in Illinois, they were never enough to keep up with fall harvest demands. With few mills between towns, it could take a farmer days to get his “turn” at the mill.
Water for the West
The catalyst that made settling the west possible was the invention of the wind engine. Unlike their much larger wooden predecessors, wind engines did not require a miller to be present to operate it. Instead, the mill could run on its own, turn automatically if the direction of the wind changed, and could even brake automatically in dangerously high winds. Wind engines pumped water from underground reservoirs to the surface.
Thus, with the opportunity to bring fresh, clean water to virtually any area, farmers could successfully yield crops in the otherwise dry western territories. The possibility of creating a national railroad network also became feasible with wind engines. Railroads, which operated using steam engines, erected wind engines near depots across the country, allowing engineers to replenish an engine’s water tank as needed.
With immigrants pouring into the country, thousands of acres of new crops being harvested, and a nation-wide railroad network, the agricultural economy boomed, sparking a national demand for lumber and grist mills.
Post Civil War
Mill building and expansion came to a halt as resources were shifted for the Civil War effort. Some, including Emminga, left the country to avoid conflict. After the war, however, Illinois’ economy again boomed and encouraged more mill building. More than half of the custom windmills that ever existed were built between 1865 and 1875 and had great business success. Interestingly, the windmills built in America were not strictly Dutch, German, English, or French, but rather a blend of architecture and technology developed over the history of milling.
Each was custom built to that millwright’s specifications. These advanced mills were often constructed with the latest in efficient milling technology, including grain elevators, bolting machines, corn shellers, and wheat-cleaners that were all wind powered. Some mills were equipped with patent shutter sails; some had tail-fans to automatically turn the cap into the wind. All were designed specifically for large-scale production and, weather permitting, were always open for business. With every windmills’ proximity to a railroad, it also allowed farmers to directly ship their freshly-ground flour and meal anywhere in the country.
Most windmills were razed or abandoned at the beginning of the twentieth century. Steam-powered roller mills were more reliable and efficient than their wooden wind predecessors. As the suburbs of Chicago expanded, acres of fields became subdivisions, and mills were destroyed in the process. The few that did survive belong to private landowners who, wisely, chose to preserve them.
Custom Windmills Today
Despite being saved from demolition, the four surviving windmills in Elmhurst, Geneva, Golden, and Peotone all faced neglect shortly after their disuse. Over the years and through changes in ownership, each mill has been renovated. Two of these mills—the Fabyan Windmill in Geneva and the Prairie Mills Windmill in Golden—have recently been fully restored and are operational.
The windmill in Peotone was kept in the Rathje family for years before turning it over to Peotone; its historical society is in the process of raising the funds necessary to continue restoration of the mill. The Fischer Windmill in Elmhurst—the oldest standing windmill in the state—was restored when Mount Emblem Cemetery was created and was just renovated again in 2015.
In 1999, Fulton began a project to construct a new, fully operational Dutch windmill on the flood control levee overlooking the Mississippi River. Within two years, De Immigrant was complete and grinding grist. In 2010 the Windmill Cultural Center—the first museum dedicated to custom mills in Illinois—opened its doors across the street.
Although Illinois probably had the highest concentration of custom windmills, it is not the only state with windmills you can visit. See the profile page for an alphabetized list of surviving mills in the United States.