How mechanisation impacted on rural Algarve

In my previous guest post on Noras I mentioned that they did not disappear overnight, because of the ingenuity of mechanics in giving them a new lease of life by being worked by small petrol engines. These could be installed relatively easily, and left the major part of the structure unchanged. However it took a repeat visit to an old windmill in the hills of the Lower Guadiana for us to realise that the same sort of transitional arrangements were in some cases made for corn grinding. And it is this ‘innovation’ I wanted to focus on today.

Let me first recap on the noras though; although traditionally worked by donkeys or mules walking a circular path and transmitting power through bevel gearing, many were latterly modified by the addition of reduction spur gearing to enable small high revolution petrol engines to provide power. Nora in the AlgarveThe actual gearing provided must have been carefully calculated to make sure that the speed of lift of the bucket chain (itself dependent on the depth of the well and size of the buckets) was commensurate with the power of the motor. It would be interesting to know whether this was done by rule of thumb, trial and error, or precisely calculated! My picture shows the sort of spur gearing used, and you can often see the “cogs” over the top of fences around the wells.

Now to windmills! You may recall Becky mentioning how long I disappeared exploring this particular windmill on our first visit, well on our second trip I spent even more time inside this mill. I had been intrigued by the drive shaft to the stones, as it continued into the base of the windmill, and some gearing remained on the vertical drive shaft. I had originally assumed that this was an innovative attempt to do some other agricultural process by utilising wind power (olive/carob crushing came immediately to mind).

However a bit of exploration revealed that a hole had been cut through the wall of the windmill into the room constructed next door, which still contained an oil engine. This obviously drove through the wall by a long belt to power the main drive shaft of the stones from below. The “hole in the wall” for the drive belt can be seen in my next picture.Oil Engine and the 'hole in the wall'

Incidentally I could discern no obvious way that the main shaft to the sails was disconnected, but as the mill was full of rather loud and very large bees I was somewhat hesitant to pursue my researches! Plus I had a photo shoot to attend.

Me with Becky and her Mum

We know from reliable accounts that the introduction of power milling into the Algarve in the middle of the twentieth century, gradually caused the abandonment of most of the windmills. But we also know that many country folk still preferred wheat ground the old way, producing wholemeal flour, and this is probably why the windmills continued a few more years of existence.

The engine house itself if quite substantial, and a large water tank was provided on the roof to enable the engine to dispense with a radiator! Mill with engine room and radiator!But the discovery of this “powered” mill seems to raise more questions than I can answer! Not least the economics of building an engine room, and buying and installing a motor so far up in the hills, when a small self contained powered mill would have seemed to have done the job as well. That there was a demand for the products seems unanswerable, but it would be fascinating to know for how long this local milling lasted before it finally ceased.

So the transition to a mechanised way of life went through two stages of evolution for at least two rural mechanical processes. What would be interesting would be to find a water mill which had been similarly adapted, a good supply of water being even more difficult to guarantee than a good head of wind!

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.

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