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The Venerable Beebe Windmill To Turn Heads Once More

Originally Posted: May 02, 2008

Andrea Aurichio

Windmills represent the wooden technology of yesteryear when these machines were a vital necessity to the colonists who used the wind powered devices to grind mill, saw wood, pump water and do vital tasks. Photos by Christine Bellini

Bridgehampton - A windmill that has been moved five times since it was built in 1820 will live on as a permanent fixture in this community where it is in an integral part of the South Fork's history thanks to a major restoration project financed by the Town of Southampton that is nearing completion this year.

Work on the well-known landmark on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton has been in progress since the town designated the historic structure in 2005. Putting the project out to bid in 2007, the Town selected Richard Baxter's restoration crew to work on the project.

Replacement parts for the windmill are reproduced at a custom woodworking shop
in Eastport. The combination of steel and wood shown here indicates the windmill
was state-of-the-art for its era.

Baxter, a 13th generation direct descendant of one of the first families to land on Southampton soil - coming ashore on Conscience Point in 1640, has pursued a long-standing interest in vintage buildings and the tools used in their construction. Beginning his career as a carpenter in Amagansett in 1970, Baxter's interest in old buildings has dominated his career.

Concentrating on jobs involving the repair and restoration of vintage buildings still in existence in significant numbers on the South Fork, Baxter learned how to make the old tools that fashioned them. Living by his craft, Baxter also created his own home from a 1850s post and beam hay barn relocated from Vermont to its present location in Amagansett 18 years ago.

"I call it my disease," Baxter said, referring to his love of old buildings and his desire to restore them. The Beebe Windmill is his third local windmill restoration project. Baxter worked on the restoration of the Gardner Windmill on James Lane in East Hampton in 1996, and participated in the restoration of the Hook Mill on Pantigo Road a few years later.

Both windmills dominate the village of East Hampton and are well-known landmarks. The Gardner Windmill forms a focal point of an historic portion of the Village just south of Town Pond at the gateway to the village where it sits near the equally significant and historic Mulford House built in 1680.

The Hook Mill, resting at the corner of Pantigo Road, is a well-known landmark that attests to the importance of windmills in the development of the South Fork's early villages when these importance pieces of machinery were used to grind grain and saw wood.

Master carpenter Dan Elitharp of Eastport studies drawings of the landmark windmill
built in Sag Harbor in 1820.

Operational windmills also functioned as a community gathering place where settlers came together to socialize, gossip and exchange information while waiting for their grain to be "milled" or ground into a flour or meal. The prevailing off-shore breezes turned the blades of the windmill, powering the large gearing protected by the building that enclosed it. The flat, open landscape of the East End combined with the prevailing off-shore breezes made the area an ideal place for these early community turbines.

The 11 windmills remaining on the eastern end of Long Island were built between 1795 and 1820. Specifically, the Beebe Windmill was built in Sag Harbor for Captain Lester Beebe, a retired whaling captain and shipbuilder who hired local woodworker Pardon Tabor and Samuel Schellinger, a millwright from Amagansett to build his windmill.

Historically significant as the last local windmill to be built and put into use on the East End, the Beebe Windmill was the tallest structure in Sag Harbor when it was completed. The windmill's distinctive height made it a landmark for the ships at sea, as well as a look-out tower for the villagers who watched for returning sea captains in this once bustling whaling town and seaport.

Historical reports tell of the miller flying a flag from the top of the windmill when a ship was spotted in the bay as it made its way into the harbor. This custom gave rise to the local expression, "Flag on the Mill, Ship in the Bay" as the flag could be seen for miles prompting townspeople to make their way down to the harbor to greet the incoming ship.

In 1837, following Captain Beebe's death, the windmill was sold to Judge Abraham Topping Rose and Richard Gelston who took it upon themselves to move the massive structure south along what is now the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike to a patch of high ground near the Presbyterian Manse.

The Beebe Windmill remained in operation at its new Bridgehampton location for 50 years under a series of owners that bespeak the South Fork's history, including Charles Norris, Major Roger Francis, Squires Hedges Miller, Charles Topping, E. Jones Ludlow, Albert Topping and Lafayette Seabury.

The names of its original builders and operators are burnished into the original beams.

Still a coveted structure, the mill was sold to James Sanford in 1882 and moved once again six years later to a plot of land near the Long Island Railroad station, also in Bridgehampton.

In keeping with the evolving technology of the times, Sanford installed a steam engine, introducing the concept of iron wind to the previously wind powered mill that made it possible to maintain production regardless of the weather conditions.

Moved yet again in 1899 after it was purchased by Oliver Osborne, the large wooden mill was relocated to the north side of the train tracks before he sold it a year later to the Bridgehampton Milling Company. The Milling Company owned and operated the mill for the next 20 years.

The Beebe Windmill was bequeathed to the town by its last owner John Berwind's
widow in her Will. She made the gift of the windmill along with two acres from her estate
on Ocean Road known as "Minden" in tribute to her owner.

By the turn of the 19th century, a new era of industrialization had begun to take hold. As the nation's primarily agrarian framework converted to steam powered machinery in its factories, the reliable old wheel and cog windmills had become antiquated remnants of a bygone era.

It was Pennsylvania industrialist John Berwind, who made his fortune in the coal business, that purchased the windmill as a lawn ornament, having it disassembled and then reassembled on the grounds of his "Minden" estate on Ocean Road in 1917.

Now owned by Southampton Town and managed by its parks department, the Beebe Windmill sits atop the two-acre site gifted to the town by Berwind's widow who bequeathed it in her Will as a tribute to her late husband. According to local records, the Berwinds were influential and active participants in the Bridgehampton community in their day.

The painstaking renovation work now underway is progressing according to plan according to Baxter and his two associates, who go about their work guided by historic renderings. They estimate the project's completion by 2008 when the windmill will be restored to functional operation.

Baxter's job is to recreate the sails, replace the rotted main beams and reconstruct the fantail. Exterior shingles will also be replaced as the project nears completion. The sails, which were damaged by storms in 2003 and 2004, will also be finished.

A scaled down replica of the Beebe Windmill is located at the foot of Main Street and Long Wharf in Sag Harbor where it houses the offices of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce during the summer months. In the winter, the Sag Harbor Lions Club sells Christmas trees at the replicated windmill as part of their holiday activities.

The town ordered more than $354,000 worth of lumber to restore the windmill. The project will restore but not repair the windmill to working condition.

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