Food and Drink

A 19th C Shelter Island gristmill is coming alive

On Saturday, Feb. 13, a team of 10 people led by a millwright from Saugerties, N.Y. maneuvered an enormous handmade wooden lattice high on a windy hill across a sheet of ice, to install the fourth and final sail on Sylvester Manor’s historic 1810 Dominy windmill.

Onlookers in hats and very sensible footwear took pictures and provided moral support. It was a modern-day barn-raising, a community bringing muscle and craftsmanship together to erect something tall and proud that works for all of us.

Times are tough for windmills. In Texas last week lawmakers blamed frozen ones for the power grid collapse that left millions without heat or light.

South Fork residents are objecting to a cable carrying wind-generated electricity, and the wind turbines that will produce that power. Homeowners fear the towers and blades will be visible from oceanfront homes, and people who fish worry the enormous windmills may pose a navigation risk.

But the reconstruction of the Island’s windmill is a cause for celebration for many residents. 

The leader of the rope-pulling, ladder-climbing, sail-heaving folks working to install the last sail on Shelter Island’s mill was Jim Kricker, a man who has been making a living restoring old mills for 40 years.

He didn’t think birds had much to worry about from this antique gristmill — which will likely operate more infrequently — with much bigger sails, operating at slower speeds and being closer to the ground than the modern wind turbines that produce electricity.

Wheat was a locally-grown product in the days before preservatives and shelf-stable commodities, and since it would go rancid or be eaten by pests if stored too long, every community needed a local gristmill in the pre-IGA era.

The Dominy mill originally twirled in Southold, but when a fire destroyed Shelter Island’s only mill, the Southold mill was moved and installed in the Center. In 1860, it ground 900 bushels of grain in a year when the population of the Island was about 500.

TEAMWORK

Mr. Kricker brought along a team of fellow millwrights and people with good upper body strength, several of whom were close relations: Amy Boyce, Michael Chrobot, Peter Kricker, Matthew Kricker and Jim Whelan. Gunnar Wisseman, Cristina Cosentino and Steve Searl worked alongside Mr. Kricker’s team to raise the last sail, paying particular attention to the installation procedure, since they may have to take down a sail themselves in the event of a catastrophic wind event.

The mill at Sylvester Manor is a type known as a smock mill because the flaring shapes of the tower and cap resemble a loose dress. Eleven smock mills are still standing on the East End of Long Island, the largest concentration of windmills in the country. The best of them were built by Nathanael Dominy.

Although Mr. Kricker does his restoration work with an eye to local materials, when the Shelter Island mill needed to be replaced, he knew he’d never find a piece of White Oak or Black Locust of the kind that would have been used in the 19th Century.

“Trees straight enough, tall enough and free of knots just don’t exist here anymore,” he said. 

The Sylvester Manor mill has a number of features that enhance its functionality. Atop the tower is a rotating cap with the sails attached, which allows the miller to rotate the sails to take advantage of the direction of the wind. There are doors on two sides of the tower so it’s possible to enter and exit through one door if the other is blocked by the turning sails.

The mill stands on high ground, with few trees and no wind-blocking structures nearby. Its location sets it apart from the 10 or so remaining windmills on the East End, most of which still have the internal gears and wheels to transfer power from the sails to the millstones, but are not operational.

HISTORY ALIVE AND TURNING

Records of the building of the mill in Southold in 1810 list the names of craftsmen who were paid to work on it, including Asa Miller, Merry Parsons and Lewis Parsons. “It’s a window onto someone’s personality,” Mr. Kricker said. “How skilled they were, how concerned about the fairness of a curve or a surface finish.”

He estimates he worked on upwards of 50 mills over the years, and it’s no exaggeration to say he’s seen it all when it comes to gristmills. Some of the antique mills are now someone’s home. While restoring a mill that was being lived in, Mr. Kricker saw hand-washables hung to dry from the large wooden gears.

Mills designed by Nathanael Dominy are distinctive in their craftsmanship, he said. “One of the things that endears me to these mills,” he added, “is to see the hand of the people who made them, the fine work that was done over 200 years ago.”

Shelter Island’s Dominy windmill is a link to our past, and its context is food and community, not power. The installation of the sails is an important and visible step in the restoration of the mill.

This writer is not going to plant wheat yet, but the wheels are turning.


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