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6 February 2018

"Thank goodness we kept the receipt" - accidental discovery of Blokweer's true age

Sometimes, new discoveries add depth to the history of Kinderdijk World Heritage. Uncovering the original receipt of the Blokweer museum mill in an ancient archive was just such a moment: this windmill turns out to be a full century older than its neighbours. Millwright Gijsbertz did an amazing job: the oak beams, cut down in 1628, are still part of the structure to this very day!

For years, the true age of the Blokweer museum windmill had been one of Kinderdijk’s mysteries. The millers and archivists of our World Heritage site knew that this special mill had to be older than the eighteen other mills of the Overwaard and Nederwaard. So far, however, no one had been able to determine exactly how much older Blokweer really was. All this changed unexpectedly, when a genuine Sherlock Holmes from neighbouring Alblasserdam made a remarkable discovery.

Detective's intuition

Sometimes, when you’re an enthusiastic researcher, you stumble upon an accidental discovery, the value of which only becomes apparent after you find it. That is exactly what happened to Geert Ouweneel when he was working his way through the ancient city archives of Dordrecht, located a few miles across the river from Kinderdijk. Tucked away between rows of dusty documents, an old text from the seventeenth century caught his inquisitive eye. Upon closer inspection, the record turned out to mention the district water board, as well as a specific millwright called Pieter Gijsbertz. Going through the papers, Mr. Ouweneel discovered that he had found something special: this was the original proof of purchase belonging to our very own Blokweer mill, which is world-famous nowadays in its capacity as one of Kinderdijk World Heritage’s museum windmills.

This discovery proves why you should always hang on to your receipts

Rich archives from a rich history

As it turned out, amateur detective Ouweneel had come across the official receipt of the windmill in the rich archives Dordrecht’s history. Dordrecht is the oldest city of the Holland region, with a past that is steeped in tales of princes and merchants, river-bound trade, and the vast wealth that was gained there over the years. The rich history of the city and the surrounding area have resulted in an equally rich historical archive. We are lucky that someone had the sense to add the mill’s proof of purchase to the stacks of ancient documents, because the information on the receipt proved that Blokweer was constructed as early as 1631; a full century before the other mills in Kinderdijk were completed between 1738 and 1740. This discovery allows us to explain why Blokweer is not the same shape as its younger counterparts: many things change over the course of a century, including local windmill fashion.

A piece of the puzzle

When Geert Ouweneel headed to the millers of Kinderdijk to show them a copy of the document, the new piece of the puzzle fell right into place. A few years ago, the millers had commissioned a dendrochronological study: a fancy word for a research method that uses a tree’s annual growth rings to determine the age of the heavy beams used in the museum windmill. The findings revealed that the oaks required for construction of the mill had been chopped down as early as 1628. As it turned out, this dovetailed nicely with the mill’s newly discovered date of birth. When he heard the news, miller Jan-Willem de Winter could see the scene unfold right before his eyes. To this windmill expert, millwright Gijsbertz’s Dordrecht roots made perfect sense. Back in those days, the city had obtained staple rights, dictating that all merchandise passing the city’s walls across the river had to be traded on the local marketplace. That included the enormous oak beams required to build a windmill. It must have been quite convenient for Kinderdijk, really, having a classical Dutch DIY store right around the corner!

Scoop

Scoop

More info

Thanks to this fascinating discovery, anyone planning to visit Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage this season will have a real scoop.

Sustainable

Even though stepping inside our museum mills has always been a fascinating experience, it all becomes a bit more special once you know that you are face to face with wooden beams that date back four hundred years or more. Feel free to ask the miller when you’re here, because he will gladly point out where the oldest parts of the windmill are still doing their job to this very day. Perhaps that is the best thing about these ancient pieces of Dordrecht oak: they still function within the greater whole of the mill’s inner mechanism. Even after a fire ravaged the museum windmill in 1997, the craftsmanship of millwright Gijsbertz persevered: the beams were ready to be used again when the mill was restored afterwards. You’re unlikely to find more sustainable timber in your regular store today…

Grateful

The Kinderdijk World Heritage Foundation and the local millers are very grateful for the efforts of detective Geert Ouweneel, because now, we are able to add an unexpected piece to the puzzle of the long and fascinating story surrounding the windmills that are still the main characters of the Kinderdijk tale.

The author

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