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Did You Ever See a Windmill?
Throughout history the natural forces of the wind have been used by men for power. During the Middle Ages windmills and water wheels were much improved, and our first settlers in Hyde County brought with them the knowledge to build and know-how to operate these for grinding grain for food. No record of the first construction of one has been found, but occupation/trade of wheelwrights and millwrights are noted in our earliest records. Certainly, no one would assume the colonists reverted to the Indian method of pounding grain by hand---barter with the Indians for corn, YES, but beating it out eight to the bar, NO.
The European windmills were of the post type, being a vertical post around which the entire mill rotated, and the turret type with the windwheel and shaft set in a rotating turret mounted on a stationary tower. Both types used an auxiliary tail wheel or directing vane to keep the windwheel facing the wind. The turret type widely used in England had a 6-14 horse power volume in a 30 mile per hour wind. This was the type our forefathers were accustomed to using.
The windmill pictured above was owned by William Durant Murray, built by David Ballance, circa 1880. It was located on the east side of Windmill Lane (so named on maps of that period) and present road No. 1311, about 5 miles east of the village of Fairfield on the North Lake Road to Engelhard. The mill operator's home was on the opposite side of the Lane. The two men in the background are Mr. Murray (with hat) and Mr. John McKinney, who, with his father, George Riley McKinney and Burrage Cutrell, operated the mill until it became storm damaged beyond safe use in the early 1900's, and was finally dismantled about 1920. Both the stone and iron grinders are still treasured possessions of Murray descendents.
In 1966 the mill operator's home was torn down. The Fairfield children helped to salvage and clean brick from the double chimney and base of the windmill. These were then used for the tiled drainway wall at the Fairfield Cemetery. The chimney was beautifully made and from the burned discoloration of the hearth brick many fires had warmed countless cold hands and feet over the past hundred years. We were not knowledgeable enough to date the brick but by size and texture they were quite different from any type we see today. Another interesting aspect was the broad base outline extending several feet in the ground, tightly packed with the largest oyster shells any of us had ever seen, some measuring ten inches in length and with the mother of pearl luster still incredibly translucent.
By calculation based on the photograph this mill was about 40 feet high with four windsails about 20 feet in length, making a 40 foot diameter windwheel. The horizontal shaft with windsails was not set at a true 90 degree angle but approximately 80 degrees making it possible for the said sweep to clear the turret completely. The sails were light frames of wooden slats with canvas over-stretched (on the principle of Venetian blinds) controlled by gears or operated by hand to regulate the turning force of the wind. A spring in the windshaft helped to regulate the speed of the sails. I remember as a small child hearing my father, and men older than himself, talk about the principle by which a windmill functioned, but with never a thought I would someday be interested in writing about one of ours.
In this type of mill the grain was first crushed on the lower floor by large stone grinders, lifted by buckets to the upper level where finer texture meal or flour was ground, cleaned by fans or windrowing of chaff, and then moved by chutes to the lower level and stored. Capacity of such a mill was in the 20 to 40 barrels of meal a day, although no mill operated on a set schedule. Despite variability and inefficiency of wind power, the windmills were an essential part of the economy.
As noted earlier, specific locations of 1700 and 1800 mills are missing, but the 1867-8 Directory of North Carolina Counties does list 2 water grist mills in Ponzer, operated by Daniel L. Burgess and Caleb Clarks. The foundation of the Burgess Mill still stands and perhaps someone will study it more closely.
The 1872 Directory lists the same mills being operated and gives locations and operators of the following:
- Fairfield - Franklin Midyett and N. B. Neal
- Middleton - B.F. Spencer, Robert Morris Burrus and W.F. Rosser
- Lake Comfort - Seth Blount Harris
- Ocracoke - Eliza Wahab, Tilmon Farrow
- Hatteras - Caleb Stone [Stowe?], George Lafayette Fulcher, Robert Robinson, Abram Farrow, B.C. Jennette
- Kennekeet - Ignatius Scarborough
- Chickamacomico - Jethro A. Midyett
- Lake Landing - Midyett & Pugh, Benjamin Carawan
- Swan Quarter - Jesse S. Mason
These and other mills continued in use until around the turn of the century. Nine of the original list were still in operation in 1896. By this time the small steam engine on wheel frames began to replace the stationary windmill for both grinding grain and sawing wood.
(Biographical Sketch: William Durant Murray, Oct. 26, 1834, d. March 4, 1904, son of Durant H. Murray and Sabra P. Farrow. He first married Rebecca Jane Watson, and one surviving child, Margarret Isabella, was born to them. After the death of Rebecca Jane he married Mary Elizabeth Spencer, b. Aug. 26, 1852 d. May 15, 1912, daughter of William Warren Spencer and Jane Gray Mann. Their children were Susan Rebecca, Florence Elizabeth and William R. (twins), Minnie L., Edward Napoleon and James Gaston Murray. The family graves are in the Fairfield Cemetery.
John McKinney, b. July 19,1854, d. Sept. 18, 1927, son of George Riley McKinney and Susan Eunice Brinn. He first married Selina Midyett and secondly Emmaline Watson; to this marriage was born Lydia, Edward Jennings and Ernal McKinney. He married thirdly, Mrs. Martha Smith Warren and no children were born to them. John and Emmaline McKinney are buried at Fairfield Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, their daughter, Lydia McKinney Sadler and son, Edward Jennings McKinney are buried in the Fairfield Cemetery.
(Photo and information from Hyde County History published by the Hyde County Historical Society in 1976.)