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Shelter Island nonprofit spending $300G to return historic windmill to working order

Stephen Searl, executive director of the Shelter Island's nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, on Aug. 5 discussed plans to restore the 209-year-old Nathaniel Dominy Windmill. Credit: Newsday / Vera Chinese

The East End was powered by renewable energy sources centuries before the first solar panel was ever installed, and Shelter Island’s nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm is working to restore its 209-year-old Nathaniel Dominy Windmill with the hopes of it once again harnessing wind power to pound buckwheat or rye into flour.

When completed it will be a reminder of Shelter Island’s self-reliant past and a history lesson on the beginning of the industrialization of food production, said Sylvester Manor executive director Stephen Searl.

“It fed the Island for a time when that was the most efficient way to ground grain,” Searl said. “It helped make the Island self-sufficient in terms of food.”

The mill, built by Nathaniel Dominy V in Southold in 1810, was later purchased and moved to the center of Shelter Island in 1840. Used by residents for decades, its steps are warped from a century’s worth of millers lugging heavy sacks of grain to the top.

Wind would turn the mill’s sails, which would then move wooden gears inside to spin a pair of stone wheels. Those millstones would pulverize bushels of wheat, rye and other grains into flour that was poured into bins on the lower level.

“It’s a big, simple machine,” Searl said. “It’s like a clock.”

The East End is home to 11 surviving centuries-old wind-powered grist mills, several of which were also built by Dominy. Grist mills, which make flour, use either wind or water power to turn their blades. The lack of rivers needed for water mills on eastern Long Island meant windmills dominated the landscape.

By 1880 the Dominy mill was used much less often and was purchased by Lillian Horsford to be preserved as an antique. The mill was revived during World War I as part of wartime conservation efforts and was then moved in 1926 to its current site on the 240-acre former plantation.

Restoration efforts have been underway for several years, and farm staff hope to complete the project by the end of 2020, Searl said. The mill has been raised and placed on a more stable foundation, and its siding has recently been replaced with Alaskan yellow cedar shingles. The next step will be replacing the rotted wind shift and attaching the blades and sails.

The goal is to preserve as much as possible and to take careful consideration in choosing replacement parts.

“In any restoration project you are trying as much as possible to preserve the original fabric of the structure,” said James Kricker of Rondout Woodworking in Saugerties, who has consulted on the project. “It’s a bit of a balance between leaving as much historic fabric, yet still having a good, stable operable machine.”

The project is expected to cost about $300,000, with $200,000 of that already raised, Searl said. Fundraising efforts continue with an Aug. 24 cocktail party on the farm.

The restoration will allow Sylvester Manor to open the building up for public tours and educational demonstrations.

“The history of the Island is not just in its buildings,” Searl said, “but also in its food and farming.”


209 / Age of Nathaniel Dominy Windmill

1840 / Year it was moved to Shelter Island

2020 / Projected completion date of project

60,000 / Weight of windmill

$300,000 / Project price tag


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