Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Millers of Holgate: A Preservation Tale

It would be easy to initially dismiss the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society as just another group of local do-gooders, trying desperately to hang onto a familiar childhood landmark that has no real importance. As I followed the small hand-lettered signs up the aptly named Windmill Rise, I found myself wondering whether this little hike would be worth it.

My apprehension made what happened next that much more pleasant. I spent the next hour and a half talking to several knowledgeable, dedicated members of the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society. The object of their affection is a windmill, built in 1770 and operational until 1933. A Grade II listed building in England’s historic significance scheme, the windmill’s original design was most notable for its unusual five sails, thought to be more efficient than an even number. Years of 20th-century urban sprawl mean the windmill is now surrounded by neat suburban housing outside York instead of granaries and orchards.

As I talked to society members, though, it became clear that the windmill figures prominently in their sense of place as Holgate residents. Jen Hay related how she and other neighborhood children used to play around the outside of the windmill, and her eyes lit up as she described the windmill becoming a source of community interest again.

“People stop and talk to their neighbors about what we’re doing here, and so many locals are members, so they stop by every month,” Jen explained. She was referring to the society’s rather ingenious membership plan, which offers individual memberships for £5 annually (family plans are a whopping £8). Members get free access to the windmill on monthly open weekends to view restoration progress and free entry to many group fundraising events. Meanwhile, the HWPS gets to claim more than 600 memberships on grant applications, which plays well with committees evaluating community support. No less than eight different organizations have awarded grant funding during the past nine years, so the plan must be working.

Using “preservation” in the group’s title is perhaps a bit misleading, as the core committee of 15 members is ambitiously restoring the windmill to produce flour via both wind and mechanical power. Many working parts, primarily wooden, have been replaced, but several other features, including grinding stones and gears, are original to the structure. When the windmill isn’t running during the week, it will be open on the weekends for public tours, focusing on its industrial heritage and role in the community. As I visited with committee members, they tossed around ideas for permanent interpretive signs on all four levels, as well as interactive displays on the ground floor for those who cannot or choose not to climb the narrow stairs.

After beginning site work five years ago, the committee is aiming for completion in 2012 and production as soon as possible. I left feeling energized about the role communities can play in keeping their own history. Consulting with architectural and historical professionals, the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society has developed reasonable goals, fundraising strategies, and business plans. Their journey hasn’t been without hiccups, nor are their plans perfect, but I’m eager to see how this story plays out.

If you’re intrigued, check out the group’s website at Some information is slightly outdated, but you can look at restoration pictures, read recent newsletters, and learn about upcoming events. Chair Bob Anderton is one of several friendly and knowledgeable committee members who would be happy to provide updates.

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