Tilting at Windmills

DSCN2205We’ve not seen the numbers that the Ingenious Knight of La Mancha saw, nor have I ever attempted to copy the Knight and tilt at (joust) these hulking giants. However of the three ways of milling that used to be prevalent in the Algarve, using water, tides and wind, it is only windmills that remain in any numbers to remind us of the importance of milling to the agricultural communities. In various stages of repair or disrepair they can be seen on many hill tops, a preserved one is very prominent at Castro Marim.

Technically the windmills are tower mills, a type that is common both in England and Holland. They consist of a cylindrical or conical tower, with a cap on top from which emerges, horizontally, the “great” shaft, around which the sails are fixed. The whole cap, together with the great shaft, can be rotated to face the prevailing wind. There are four sail arms, and four intermediate arms, the latter used for rigging the sails. DSCN2211These arms are morticed into the great shaft: which one would have thought would have been the cause of a significant weakening at this point. However the great shaft was apparently made of a very hard wood (species unknown) , so it is assumed the methodology had been proved over a long time.

A large cogged wheel mounted on the great shaft transfers the power, via a cog mounted on a vertical shaft, to the mill stone. The whole structure avoided the use of metal (presumably because of the cost and difficulty of working it in remote areas), and only the reinforcing band around the large cogged wheel, and the final drive shaft to the stones, used iron.

Couldn’t see any millstones in the abandoned mills, but my research indicates Algarvian millstones are about 40 inches in diameter (1 metre), about 16” (40cm) thick, and weighed about one and a half tons when new. The cost of each in the 1960’s was about US$10.00. (The daily wage of a labourer in the Algarve at this time was about US$00.60). The cost of delivery could easily exceed the cost of the stone itself!

As you will see from the very short video above each mill had four triangular canvas sails, each affixed on one long side to each arm, and the “loose” end roped to an intermediate arm. The sails were extremely expensive, costing about US$25.00 each, and were therefore looked after with great care, and removed for storage if the mill was not operating for any length of time.

Alentejo windmillIt is hard to come by any information about the type of produce milled. One source states that it was uncommon for grain other than wheat and maize to be ground; although barley, beans and chick peas were commonly grown they must have been utilised as whole seeds rather than flour. However this may have reflected the type of millstones used, and the way that they were cut, as other grains may have not milled satisfactorily.

The capital cost of building a mill was obviously substantial, but again it is difficult to find out whether they were individual enterprises or were built and leased out. It does appear that the miller’s toll (charge) was 10% of the flour.

DSCN2218These mills seem to have been relatively simple compared to their contemporaries in England. There appears to be no pre-processing of the grain (eg cleaning), and no after-operations such as bolting, sorting and grading. (Although it does appear that there was a single sieving after the grinding). This might also help to explain the restriction on the varieties of grist milled. Different grains require very different treatments and indeed stones, which was obviously not worth the financial investment for Algarvian millers.  The use of the auxiliary power take-offs from the main stone shaft are also not known.

However until the advent of power milling, they met the needs of their rural population, and even after the introduction of more sophisticated methods many people preferred flour from the old mills, making a virtue of its coarse wholemeal output: something today we pay a premium for!

To finish here’s an excellent video from the 1960s of a working mill.

Those of you who are regular readers may have noticed a different style/approach to this post or perhaps you spotted the different Gravatar and name in the author profile below. If you did spot either of these changes then well done!  This is a guest post by my husband, and more will be following. I’m hoping for one on Noras next.

Author: Mr B

An antiquarian bookseller who enjoys spending English winters birding and drinking red wine in Portugal. Also interested in the history of the places we visit, hence the very occasional technical post on Delights of the Algarve.

12 thoughts

  1. Re not seeing any millstones in abandoned windmills in the Algarve, I saw millstones in a derelict windmill on a hill overlooking Burgau village yesterday.

  2. I love your insights into Portugal. We got back from Olhao earlier this week and I can’t wait to go back later this year. My latest blog post shares how Portugal inspires me, Take a look.

  3. Very well done , pleased to meet you Mr B
    Ps : close to where I live , south of Lisbon there are at least two river tide mills and one of them has a tiny tiny museum
    Turtle Hugs 🙂

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