For those of us who have purchased our food at “the store” all our lives, it might be hard to understand the important role the windmill played in the lives of our prairie dwelling forefathers. Sometimes the beautiful structures seem like nothing more than a quaint symbol of a bygone time. Let’s look a little closer at the role they played in villages on the Russian steppe.
Windmills on the Mennonite colonies in Southern Russia were primarily used for milling grain into flour. Nowadays, flour is treated and can be stored for long periods of time. In the olden days, however, grain would be stored after threshing and only ground when needed. This raw flour would need to be used fairly quickly or it would go bad.
If you lived by a river and were lucky enough to have access to a water mill, you would have had dependable access to a mill, no matter what the weather was. If you lived on the Russian steppe, or Canadian prairie, for that matter, your ability to grind grain into flour would have depended on the wind. This meant that windy days would have been milling days for everyone, if there was a risk of an extended calm or if there hadn’t been wind for some time. Let’s look at some of the Russian maps from the later half of the 19th centuries showing important features like wells, barns, and more important to us, windmills. Most of these mills were fairly small “post mills,” and not the enormous Dutch style windmills constructed later on.
The map below shows approximately five windmills in the Bergthal colony at this time.
Here in the town of Mikhailovka, located some 10 or 15km west of the Molotschna colony, we can see literally dozens of windmills on the edge of the town.
It’s probably safe to assume that several of these post style windmills could be replaced by one of the big Dutch style windmills, because later maps seem to show fewer. It’s interesting to me how my mind’s image of one windmill standing over a town like a solitary watchman has been replaced by rows of them along the edge of the village.