Withstanding the Winds of Time: Beebe Windmill’s Journey Through Hamptons History
Partially concealed behind a row of manicured hedges off of Bridgehampton’s Ocean Road is a peculiar little wrinkle in time: In the center of the peaceful enclosure is a large stone with a plaque marking the temporary resting place of the Bicentennial Council’s time capsule, to be opened July 4th, 2076. And right behind it, standing four stories tall and made entirely of wood, is the Beebe windmill, still intact despite the changes that have taken place around it since its construction in 1820.
The summer of 2010 marked the beginning of Beebe Windmill’s latest chapter, when the Bridgehampton Historical Society opened up the Beebe Windmill for residents and visitors to tour.
“We’re so excited to be able to share this with the public,” said Sally Spanburgh in anticipation of the opening. Ms. Spanburgh became the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s Program Coordinator three months prior to the institution of public hours. “The Beebe Windmill’s amazing survival story is absolutely integral to the entire Hamptons community.”
Throughout its 190-year history, the Beebe Windmill has moved locations four times, starting from its native Sag Harbor, where it was built for whaling captain and shipbuilder Lester Beebe, and finally coming to rest in 1917 at Minden, the Bridgehampton estate of oil industrialist John E. Berwind. That is where it has continued to stand, on what is now called the Berwind Memorial Green, since his widow bequeathed the windmill to the Town of Southampton in her husband’s memory.
Though the public is encouraged to request special access to the windmill throughout the year, 2010 marked the first time that many could enter it since its significant restoration in 2007. The windmill’s interior is full of delightful reminders of its journey to its current home, such as the cast iron gears used in the 19th century to grind flour, and the initials carved into nearly every inch of the wooden planks.
Opposite from the door, dark, slightly curved letters spell out “CH Montcalm July 21st, 1872.”
“It’s such a privilege to have this keyhole to peer through into the past,” said Ms. Spanburgh. “This could even have been written in whale oil.”
It’s possible as well that some of the wood used to build the windmill could predate 1820, as raw materials from demolished buildings were frequently reused for the construction of new ones.
“There’s a new attitude of structures as disposable, and a trend of tearing down buildings as soon as you don’t want them anymore. But before complicated plumbing and wiring systems tethered down a structure to one specific location, it was possible to move them around, to revive them,” said Ms. Spanburgh. “It’s lovely to think about such a beautiful and functional building being reincarnated in a new home.”
The windmill, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is the only one on all of Long Island with its original fly, regulators, and cast iron gears, still in place as they were in 1820 when they were built into what would become the tallest structure in all of Sag Harbor.
Functioning gristmills, in those days, were community centers, where people would gather to socialize as they waited for their grain to be milled. Beebe Windmill’s conspicuous height also made it useful as a lookout for ships, which might go on voyages lasting years before returning home to port.
“There was a saying: ‘Flag on the mill, ship in the bay,’” explained Bridgehampton Historical Society Archivist Julie Greene. “People were anxious to see that their loved ones had returned safely, so at the first sign of an incoming ship, a flag would be erected on the windmill to let everyone know it had arrived. The windmill was a very ordinary part of life, because it was just another chore to get your grain milled, but at the same time, the lookout made it a very special place.”
It is yet another one of the ironies of time that windmills, which have come to seem so archaic, could very well become relevant technologies for creating energy in the future.
“Though of course the application will be different, it’s the same ingenuity, the same principal to harvest the wind in order to get the job done,” said Ms. Greene. “This is why it’s important for us to be responsible stewards of the past, and to pass what we’ve inherited on to the next generation. Windmills dotted the landscape a century ago; wouldn’t it be funny to see that come back?”
While cocooned inside the windmill, after climbing up the four flights of narrow wooden stairs to the point where the sails are affixed to its exterior, it’s possible to imagine the world outside unchanged from the day it was constructed two centuries ago.
And then one sees the sturdy banister guiding back down, and the quirkily anachronistic electric sockets, and it’s time to go back outside and wait for them to dig up that time capsule in 2076.