Windmill Island in Holland, Michigan, is a little bit of old Netherlands near the shore of Lake Michigan. Each year, visitors from all over the world visit its 36 acres of dikes, canals, manicured gardens, Dutch styled buildings, and a sea of tulips that bloom each spring.
Towering over all is "DeZwaan," a 248-year-old, seven-story tall, working Dutch windmill that annually turns thousands of pounds of coarse wheat grain into fine baking flour. Surveying all from her perch atop "The Swan" is the windmill's operator and miller, Alisa Crawford, K'91.
"DeZwaan" is the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the United States and I'm grateful to be the only Dutch-certified miller in the Americas," Alisa said.
Alisa received her certification in the Netherlands in September 2007 following two years of study and the scrutiny of Dutch milling masters. This first ever achievement by an overseas miller attracted the attention of Dutch news media and Alisa was featured in numerous newspapers and on primetime TV in the Netherlands.
Her career, however, has been a lifelong pursuit during which she has crisscrossed the globe with the dual intent of learning how to operate grain mills of all types and learning how to make history come alive for people of all ages.
"My work is very grounding--no pun intended," she says. "It helps me teach history in a very hands-on, believable way. This is work I've wanted to do since I was a teenager and that really came together for me during my time at Kalamazoo."
A self-described "sponge when it came to absorbing history," Alisa feels that, "because of my 'K' internships, I learned that history, especially living history, really helps to connect people in a disconnected world. Now I get to do it for a living."
At the age of 15, Alisa took a job at historical Crossroads Village near Flint, Michigan. She learned skills like spinning, weaving, lace-making and cooking on an old wood burning stove. One day when she ran out of flour, she went to the grist mill in search of more. There she watched huge water-powered millstones grind whole wheat berries into fresh flour. Enthralled, she decided to learn more about the milling process. By 17, she became the miller's apprentice; by 19, the miller.
"It was hard work lugging 50 to 100 pound bags of grain," she said. "But I loved the process of starting with grain and ending up with beautiful baking flour.
During her Kalamazoo College years, Alisa completed internships studying period cuisine and clothing, and historic interpretation and programming at some of the country's best known living history museums, including Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Instead of study abroad, Alisa chose to study Appalachian history and culture at Berea College in Kentucky. "With a major in history and a concentration in American studies, it made more sense to use my foreign study time to learn more about our own country and our regional differences."
Alisa completed her Senior Independent Project at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, writing a paper on the history of living history museums. While on campus, she spent weekends and holidays working the mill at Crossroads Village. She also worked an on campus job of helping design and construct costumes for the Theater Department.
After earning her B.A. degree in history, she spent two years working at Crossroads Village and attending the Cooperstown (NY) Graduate Program in History Museum Studies. Following that, she worked for a museum in Honolulu and assisted with the renovation of the oldest frame house in Hawaii.
Alisa returned to Michigan to work as the Director of Education at the Holland Museum. The arrival of her son in 2000 prompted her to take time off from museum work. But she was "delighted" to take over part-time milling tasks at Windmill Island, a municipal heritage park owned by the City of Holland, in 2002. Since 2007, she's been full-time working as both miller and event coordinator.
Also since 2002, Alisa has also had her own business, Maiden Mills LLC, which produces Michigan made baking mixes for pancakes, scones, Irish soda bread and more, all made from organic stone ground flour. The mixes are from recipes inspired by the 18th and 19th century cookbooks she loves to study.
At Windmill Island, however, her focus is on "DeZwaan." Built in 1761, the windmill sports bullet holes received during World War II. The City of Holland bought the windmill from a private owner in the Netherlands and shipped it in pieces to its current site in 1964. City leaders needed to seek special permission from Dutch authorities, including the Dutch Mill Society, because a law forbade exportation of Dutch windmills. "DeZwaan" was the last of its kind to leave the old country, and stands as testament to the proud Dutch heritage that founded Holland, Michigan.
The City of Holland had to promise the Dutch government to maintain "DeZwaan" as a working mill, but also to allow visitors from all over the world to tour and learn from it. Thus, tens of thousands of people from near and far visit it each year.
Alisa annually grinds locally grown soft white winter wheat berries into graham (whole wheat) flour, packaging about 3,000 pounds in two and three pound bags that are sold at the shop on the Island during spring and summer.
The grinding process employs a 3,000 pound "runner stone" that turns above a stationary 2,000-pound
"This is work I've wanted to do since I was a teenager and that really came together for me during my time at Kalamazoo.""bed stone." Each measures more than 55 inches in diameter and is separated by only the thickness of a single sheet of paper during the grinding process. Curved grooves channel the grains between the stones.
"It's actually more of a scissor motion than pounding," Alisa says. Millstones need to be sharpened when they become dull. Alisa is among the few people know how to do this and needs about an eight-hour day to sharpen each stone.
Large oaken gears turn the giant stones, which she must lubricate and preserve using heated beeswax. Spindle gears, brake wheel, capstan wheel, fanning mill, wind shaft, governor, and myriad other mysterious apparatuses fill the milling, grinding, dust and other four floors. It's an anatomy of inner organs working together to perform a single function: grind the grain--most of it reachable only by steep stairs and ladders.
"The miller's stair master," she jokes.
All of the Swan's inner workings draw power from its outer wings, the four massive blades that catch the wind. Forty feet long and eight feet wide, together they weigh 6,600 pounds. Each blade includes a leading edge, a steel beam, and wooden latticework over which Alisa stretches the canvas sails. She needs about eight minutes to set each sail, by climbing and affixing rope to "kikkers" or hooks on each blade.
In deference to OSHA regulations, she must wear a harness and be tethered while climbing the riggings. Knowledge of knots is crucial. "Being a sailor helps," said the former Girl Scout. "I wanted to be an explorer when I was a girl. In many ways I am."
The blades are curved for optimum aerodynamics and the entire set can turn 360 degrees. There is no fantail, so she must rotate the set manually.
Ideal winds for turning the millstones are 20-25 miles per hour, 15 will work, 30 and up can be tricky. "I keep a close watch on the western sky for storms," Alisa says. "I need to plan ahead and be ready to set sail or remove sail at a moment's notice."
Alisa recently returned from the Netherlands and another round of certification on her path to master miller status.
"My M.A. in milling," she says.
"I love my job and this wonderful old windmill," she says. "Both allow me to live history and teach history. I get to build bridges with other countries, make connections with the past, and connect with many people."
"Kalamazoo College set me on this path by preparing me to be a global citizen. I was encouraged to pursue my highest goals while finding a way to make a difference in the world."
Learn more about DeZwaan and how you can contact Alisa Crawford at www.windmillisland.org