May 12 and 13 have been designated National Mill Day when some 900 windmills all over Holland open their doors to the public. Why is Holland always associated with windmills? Why do windmills in the scenery background often symbolize Dutch landscape?

Certainly, these questions may have crossed one’s mind. It makes one curious that images of windmills, no matter where they are located, evoke the thought of Holland, which is amusing since the windmill was actually not a Dutch invention. Here are a few fun facts about windmills that you might not know!

1. Windmills used to be everywhere

A gentle creak and a soft ‘whoosh’ as the sails zip past is all you hear when standing close to a windmill. These days, it’s easy to forget that a century or so ago this sound was ubiquitous. Windmills (or molens in Dutch) used to be everywhere: more than 10,000 fully operational windmills once dotted the Dutch landscape, being employed for industrial purposes. When the windmills found themselves in competition with steam and later diesel and electricity, they gradually disappeared from the Dutch landscape: around 1,200 of them remain today. Being lovingly maintained and protected, they are now world-famous icons of the Dutch landscape, especially in Old Holland. One of the best places for windmill spotting is the Zaanse Schans, a free outdoor park with an impressive collection of historical windmills.

2. Windmills in art

Windmills abound in the paintings of the Golden Age. They could hardly be avoided: some nine thousand dotted the landscape in the 17th century. Rembrandt (a miller’s son) painted a powerful picture in which a windmill towers over the landscape, the sun lighting up its sails as black clouds recede. In 17th century paintings windmills usually weren’t simply windmills but symbols of strength. They kept the soil dry and the people safe.

3. First windmills

The Greeks and Persians are believed to be the first to have invented windmills. Historians say that sometime in 222 to 285 BC, a Greek named Tesibius was the first who conducted an experiment on the idea of utilizing the wind to run a mill. During those times, water was more widely used in operating mills and other machines. In 700 BC, the Persians started to use windmills for grinding grain however the mills were fixed and would not turn by themselves. The vanes just followed the direction of the breeze.

4. Reason for the fame

So why have the Dutch windmills become so famous, creating a general impression that windmills exist only in the Netherlands? There are more images that can be associated with this place such as its vast fields of tulips, creamy cheese and the people’s unique culture, yet the windmills stood out. The reason for the Dutch windmills’ fame could perhaps be attributed to Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest who lived from 1550 to 1607. He introduced people to other uses of the windmill such as wood sawing at high speed. It was then that the Dutch East India Company started to explore the East Indies and there was a great need for wood to be used in building ships. The Dutch windmills were put to massive utility in producing tons of wood each year. Thus they rose to prominence and became indisputable icons of this land below the sea.

5. Where to see windmills today

Kinderdijk is one of the best-known places for windmill watching. Its 19 windmills, almost all ‘grondzeilers’, are on the UNESCO world heritage list. These mills, which pumped up the polder water, played an important part in shaping the Netherlands. The Zaanse Schans is another popular windmill destination. It has a collection of working saw mills, oil mills, a spice mill and many more historical monuments. Best avoided during the main tourist season.