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Jul 13, 2010 4:51 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Beebe Windmill tours offer a glimpse of the past

Jul 13, 2010 4:51 PM

Partially concealed behind a row of manicured hedges off 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 4, 2076. And right behind it, standing four stories tall and made entirely of wood, is the Beebe Windmill, still 
intact despite the many changes that have taken place in 
“the surrounding community
in the nearly 200 years since 
its construction.

This summer, for a few hours on four select Fridays through July and August, the Bridgehampton Historical Society 
will be opening 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, who became the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s Program Coordinator this April. “The Beebe Windmill’s amazing survival story is absolutely integral to the entire Hamptons community.”

Throughout its 190-year history, the Beebe Windmill has been moved four times, starting from its native Sag Harbor, where it was built in 1820 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, this is the first time that many will 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 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 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 principle 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?”

The Beebe Windmill will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to noon on July 16 and August 6 and 1 to 3 p.m. on July 23 and August 20.

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