Dutch Transplant Wants to Save a Czech Watermill

By Paul Gipe

Wherein we reconnect with a Dutch miller and learn of his campaign to preserve his adopted country’s watermills.

Actually Cornelis Gerkes wants to save Czech watermills, plural, just as the Dutch saved a thousand of their historic windmills. But he knows that to start a movement in the former East Bloc country he must succeed with at least one mill for the others to follow.

Gerkes lives and breathes mills. He’s what we might call a mill geek.

We first met him two decades ago one Sunday morning as we were driving back from the dedication of an ill-fated American wind farm in the Dutch province of Groningen. (That in itself is another story; see Remarks by Paul Gipe at the Dedication of EDON’s Wind Plant at Eemshaven, the Netherlands.)

It may have been National Windmill Day—yes, there is such a thing. We were driving by the Germania mill, its giant rotor turning and its windmill flag flying, indicating it was open to the public. Naturally we had to stop for a visit. We met Gerkes and his father and, thus, began a wonderful adventure. It was a beautiful day for a Dutch miller–blue sky, a few clouds, and a good stiff breeze.

Gerkes exuberantly showed us Germania, a grain-grinding mill. After all, it’s not every day you get a couple of American tourists, one of whom is a certified windmill geek himself. But Gerkes really wanted to show us “his” windmill: the Zilvermeeuw drainage mill near Onderdendam. His enthusiasm was infectious and soon I was clambering around inside Zilvermeeuw, taking pictures of its machinery and its rotor from the cap of the smock mill. It was a once in a lifetime experience for Nancy and me.

We still have a bottle that long ago once contained windmill-produced kruiden bitter—herb liquor—that he gave us. It’s there on the shelf behind me with my other windmill souvenirs. Gerkes was so warm-hearted that when he saw me eyeing the official Dutch windmill flag that he offered to ship it to us in California. It adorned my office in Tehachapi for many years and was flown at many of Tehachapi’s Wind Fairs during the late 1990s.

Cor Gerkes: the Mill Man

Gerkes is Dutch, but he now lives in the Czech Republic with his wife and young son.

I appreciate people with a passion for wind energy and Gerkes is one of those. He began working with windmills when he was eleven years old. He started training as a miller when he was only fourteen. Every Saturday he would leave home—in every season, he notes proudly—to work in one of the thousands of windmills still operating in the Netherlands.

Gerkes wanted to know how to work with each of the varied windmills that still exist—from drainage mills, to grain grinding mills, to paint mills, to saw mills. He eventually landed at the Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum) in Arnhem where he could learn how to work on each kind in one location.

When Gerkes was 16 he began his formal apprenticeship. He passed his miller’s exam when he was only eighteen, becoming the youngest miller in the Netherlands–a land of millers.

For more than two decades he managed Gemania and Zilvermeeuw before he moved to the Czech Republich. Dutch windmills have names, some quite whimsical. Zilvermeeuw means herring gull in Dutch.

Mill Preservation in the Czech Republic

Gerkes was shocked to learn that, unlike the Netherlands, the Czech Republic has no society for the preservation of mills and no government financial support. He found that many watermills in the Czech Republic have fallen into disrepair and without intervention will soon vanish from the Czech landscape.

This is where Gerkes comes in. He’s hoping to raise 200,000 USD to purchase and rehabilitate a Czech watermill that has access to its own stream and head pond. He’s found an historic mill that still has all its internal machinery intact. He’s even found the mill’s original plans.

Gerkes’ dream is to restore the mill and its buildings and use the site as a destination for agro-tourism. He hopes to develop rooms in the mill building as a bed and breakfast to attract overnight tourists from wealthy northern Europe.

Camping has become popular in the former East Bloc countries and Gerkes wants to develop a campground for Czechs and others. He hopes that in this way he can spread the message to Czechs that their heritage is worth preserving.

Gerkes also wants to add a museum and the ever useful gift shop.

While he hopes to grind grain for tourists, he also wants to generate electricity that will either be used onsite or sold to the grid. The latter is even more difficult in the Czech Republic, which remains enamored with nuclear power, than it is in North America. Communist centralization dies hard.

There’s room on the mill site to add 12 kW of solar photovoltaic panels, says Gerkes. If he needs to, he could take the entire mill off-the-grid and showcase how to live independently with renewable energy.

Banks won’t loan to such a risky venture, Gerkes has learned to his dismay. So he has turned to crowd funding. He recently launched his campaign to Save the Czech watermills and is soliciting donations on the Indiegogo fundraising site.

For more information you can contact Cor Gerkes directly or contribute on their dedicated donation page.

We’ve contributed a small amount to Gerkes venture. We hope others do as well.