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A Long History of Wind Power in East Hampton

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Historic photo of the Hook Mill on North Main Street in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Historic photo of the Hook Mill on North Main Street in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

By Tessa Raebeck

With the reemergence of wind power on the East End, the area has come full circle, harkening back to the days as early as 1650 when early settlers relied heavily on the wind to help grind their grain into flour.

“They started right at the beginning,” East Hampton Town’s historic preservation consultant Robert Hefner said of windmills in the town, which was one of the first English settlement in New York.

Watermills were not suitable for the region’s flat topography, so the windmill became the logical choice for energy. Although modern windmills—wind turbines—are used to generate electricity, windmills were originally developed for milling grain for food production, evolving to supply power for many additional industrial and agricultural needs until the early 20th century.

East Hampton’s colonial settlers came from an area of England that used windmill technology for grinding grains. Although most windmills in early East Hampton were used as gristmills, grinding wheat, corn and rye, there were also a handful of wind-powered sawmills in the town.

The inside of the Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The inside of the Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Mr. Hefner estimates there were some three windmills in the Village of East Hampton and two or so in Amagansett at any given time.

Gardiners Island, which was given as a gift to Lion Gardiner in 1639 by the Montaukett people, had its own windmill.

Out of 43 traditional windmills built in New York State, 33 were on the East End. Fourteen of those were in East Hampton. Sag Harbor has had two in its history.

The English-style windmills of the East End, which vary from the Dutch style used on the western part of Long Island, are smock mills. They use sails that are pitched so that when the wind strikes them, they turn. As the sails turn, they rotate what’s called a wind shaft, a giant wooden timber the sails are passed through.

Mounted on the wind shaft inside the cap of the mill is the brake wheel, a large wooden gear some 7 feet in diameter. That gear, in turn, rotates another gear, transferring the motion from a horizontal to a vertical direction down into the mill. In the center of the mill is an upright vertical shaft that turns and on top of that timber another gear is mounted, which, in the case of a gristmill, turns the millstone.

“The gears are calibrated so that…they don’t turn very fast,” Mr. Hefner said Tuesday. “But the gears are set out in such a way that the slow motion of the sails eventually produces a faster rotation of the millstone.”

A “very famous craftsman,” according to Mr. Hefner, Nathaniel Dominy built the Hook Mill in East Hampton in 1806 and the historic Gardiners Island Mill in 1795.

Samuel Schellinger of the Amagansett Schellingers, a family that has lived in East Hampton continuously since colonial times, was another skilled millwright in the town.

“It was definitely a specialized skill, which came from England to America, and then on Long Island, they sort of developed some things themselves that are different here than anywhere else,” Mr. Hefner said of Mr. Dominy, Mr. Schellinger and other local craftsmen. “There are little things that sort of develop in each particular region.”

The sails must face into the wind in order for the windmill to operate, but the wind, naturally, comes from all different directions. So, the cap on top of the tower needs to be turned to face the sails into the wind.

Settlers first turned the cap—and thus the sails—using a big pole and lever, but Mr. Dominy of East Hampton invented a way to turn the cap using gearing inside of the mill itself instead.

The inside of the historic Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The inside of the historic Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Many gristmills fell out of use in the 1850s, when flour started to be made in steam-powered mills, one of which was built in Bridgehampton.

“It was easier, less expensive,” Mr. Hefner said.

Gristmills were pushed further out of use when the railroad was extended to the East End during the 1870s and flour began being shipped out from New York City.

“But the mills operated here—some of them into the 1920’s for animal feed,” Mr. Hefner said. “And then some people, just by habit I guess, preferred to grind their own wheat in the windmill, so it did hang on for quite a while after manufactured flour was available from the steam-powered mills.”

Some of the first summer colony houses in the town, Mr. Hefner said, had their own wind pumps, “little towers with a water tank and a little windmill on top that would pump the water up for household use.” That technology was also commonly used on farms.

Mr. Hefner estimates gristmills, the original East Hampton windmills, were still in use in East Hampton until about 1920. The iconic Hook Mill on North Main Street operated regularly until 1908.

“There was a period then when electricity took over for electrical pumps, and then there’s the interval where there really were no windmills, before the most recent use of them to generate electricity,” he said.

After a nearly 100-year hiatus, it appears wind power is coming back to East Hampton.

“It makes sense, right?” said Mr. Hefner. “There’s a lot of power in the wind, so it makes sense.”