As its 25th year approaches, Fulton’s windmill needs more volunteers

Larry Russell talks about the structure of the de Immigrant, the Fulton windmill Friday, June 7, 2024. The wind powered machine generates 100 horsepower for grinding grain.

FULTON – After the Great Flood of 1965 lifted Mississippi River water levels to heights never seen before, a levee was built over a seven-year period along the riverfront to protect the city should it happen again.

After the system of levees and flood walls was completed in 1983, an idea began circulating: If Fulton had a dike, shouldn’t there also be a windmill on it? It’s an idea that made sense given the waves of Dutch immigrants who had made Fulton their home over the previous century.

A committee was formed to lead the way in getting a windmill built on the dike. It took a couple of decades to happen – time that was needed to design it, obtain grants, raise funds and build it.

The windmill, which was named de Immigrant, was built in the Netherlands, dismantled and then shipped to Fulton, where it was reassembled by Dutch millwrights and masons who traveled to the U.S. on three occasions to build it at the foot of 10th Avenue. The windmill was dedicated in May 2000 at the city’s annual Dutch Days festival.

On the doorstep of celebrating its 25th anniversary, the windmill has become a tourism magnet that draws in visitors from around the world. To keep it up and running, volunteer millers and others have poured countless hours into its operations.

Now the windmill finds itself in need of volunteers in all areas. While 10 to 12 active volunteer millers work at the windmill, more are needed. From millers to docents, all volunteers are welcome, said Heidi Kolk, who became a volunteer miller in 2001.

“Not everybody who works at the windmill is a miller,” Kolk said, adding those who are interested can take a look at some books and spend a shift with a miller to see if they want to learn.

The windmill is fully operational, said Larry Russell, a volunteer miller since 2006 who also served as the town’s mayor. The entire head, or cap, can turn and wind power moves the sails. A set of blue basalt millstones produces a variety of flours. Stone-ground buckwheat, corn, rye and wheat flours all are manufactured at de Immigrant and for sale at the Windmill Cultural Center across the street.

The stones take up three floors with various machineries and millers can grind about one bushel of grain every 10 minutes, wind permitting, according to the city’s website.

When the mill first opened, master miller Derek Jan Tinga traveled from the Netherlands to Fulton and trained six people to become millers. The next year, a group of 10 to 12 went to the Netherlands to become millers under Tinga’s tutelage.

The team of volunteer millers not only grinds grain, but hosts monthly tourism programs at the WCC. Wild Winter Wednesdays showcase cultural programs. Docents verse themselves in the story of the windmill, which they share with visitors. All are volunteers.

The Friends of the Windmill raises funds and is the umbrella organization under which all the other committees fall. A steering committee also exists, made up of a member of each of the other groups.

Russell said the mill has been inspected throughout the years and is expected to stand for generations to come, so volunteer millers will be needed long into the future.

“It’s going to be here a long time. It’s in great shape,” Russell said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspects the mill to ensure it maintains safety standards.

“It’s safety for the mill, safety for the miller and safety for the guests, in that order, because if the mill isn’t safe, the miller isn’t safe and if the miller isn’t safe, the guest isn’t safe,” Kolk said.

Once a person passes the test to become a miller, he or she undergoes constant training. Kolk said some of that comes through participation in a cultural exchange program. Fulton’s millers visit mills throughout the country and millers from throughout the U.S. and world come to de Immigrant.

Anyone who wants to learn more about becoming a miller can decide how many hours they would be at the mill, Kolk said. The same goes for volunteers who would like to become docents to tell the mill’s story to visitors. The hope is to find people to volunteer a minimum of four hours a month.

The windmill is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, June though September. The windmill is open on weekends in October.

To learn more, call the Windmill Cultural Center at 815-589-3925.

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.