More than a tourist attraction, De Zwaan impacts our local food, drink, and spirits. And it’s looking toward the future.
The mighty winds of change are here.
Story and photographs by Scott Meivogel.
Published by the Holland Visitors Bureau.
You’re all in for a treat come Tulip Time, and it has nothing to do with the millions of colorful tulips that will cover the city of Holland. This treat is a delight for a different sense. Yes, it will smell wonderful. It will also surely look like a sweet delicacy. But the taste will be out of this world. A taste made possible by the strong winds blowing off of Lake Michigan.
The ingredient that makes up the framework for the entire recipe.
De Boer Bakery, City Vu Bistro, Beechwood Inn, and Coppercraft Distillery. Just a small sample of local restaurants and producers of fine spirits that harness the power of wind. One woman is at the helm, standing strong in a refurbished couple-hundred year-old Dutch-made windmill — the only authentic operating Dutch windmill in the United States. De Zwaan is much more than a tourist destination, and to the residents of Holland, Michigan it’s the producer of the most important ingredient. The ingredient that makes up the framework for the entire recipe. Flour.
“The last time I was there I was in the 3rd grade.”
When many Holland residents talk about De Zwaan, they remember their grade school field trips. And while it’s not something that is always on their minds today, it’s safe to say that it’s usually in their sights. De Zwaan is huge, standing nearly 125 feet tall, and situated on 36 beautifully peaceful acres. It lives. It breathes. It knows it has a job to do. This windmill has been through a war, multiple tear downs and relocations, a trip across the ocean, and a rebuild. It’s in need of constant TLC, but as has always been the case, it doesn't just take. It gives back.
It’s also trying to find its next play here in Holland. A new way to lead the community into the next chapter. De Zwaan will need some help though. Quietly, Alisa Crawford, the woman at the helm, has been grinding away. Pulverizing local Michigan wheat into fine powder, packaging it, and selling it to tourists that visit Windmill Island Gardens. Quietly she has been building relationships with local establishments to bring them a taste from the old world, helping to make their bread and specialty dishes taste like nothing else.
The secret is out. The flour Alisa produces is marvelous. De Boer uses and sells it. Coppercraft Distillery, crafter of the official Tulip Time spirit, contracted her to grind not flour, but cracked wheat, specifically for their limited-time drink. The entire city of Holland, and all its visitors, will soon be enjoying the fruits of Alisa’s labor.
Alisa did not enter into this partnership with Coppercraft Distillery lightly. Many companies have approached her with thoughts and ideas, but have failed to follow-through. She had questions. Concerns.
Grinding the proper mash that Coppercraft would need takes time and a lot of energy. Usually there are five different ingredients that make up a mash. If that was the case, Alisa would have to clean the 2 ton stones after each grind. It would almost be too much work.
But, Coppercraft only wanted one grain — the wheat.
Consistency was also of great importance. Perfect consistency requires perfect sifting. Perfect sifting takes days and days. However, once again, Coppercraft made it easy. No sifting needed! They wanted cracked wheat. Well alright, now Alisa is feeling it. Grind the wheat and package it into 50 lbs bags.
Forty 50 lbs. bags.
2000 lbs of cracked wheat as of March 1st. That order was just increased 3x’s! They now want 6000 lbs! Fire up De Zwaan!
That in itself is no easy task. There’s 2 hours of prep time there, and that’s only if the wind is cooperating. Alisa needs 20–30 mph of Lake Michigan’s fury, for 3–4 hours straight. When the wind is finally blowing hard enough, the blades need turned into the wind, the sails need setting, only then there will be enough power to do the work.
A wind powered mill is very different than a water powered mill, where Alisa first started her craft. Water power is very reliable and can be accessed by a simple release of the dammed water. After the water gate is opened, it simply flows with steady power, with very little variation. A very different scenario with wind power.
First, Alisa must figure out the wind and direction. She then turns the blades into the wind, with the correct amount of sail. As she points out, “you have to do all these things just to have your power. And then it’s not often steady.” There has to be an easier way, right? In this day and age, it can’t be the same as it was 200 years ago. Alisa perks up at the thought. Her quiet demeanor spikes a bit.
This could change everything, not only for Alisa, but for the city of Holland.
One of her dreams is to build a weather station at the mill. On-site weather data. Wow. Can it happen? Part of Alisa’s training was in meteorology, offered locally by WZZM’s weather guru, George Lessens. Alisa thought it would be a good idea to get her feet wet locally in the subject before her lessons began in the Netherlands, in the Dutch language. George agreed.
While George taught Alisa the ins and outs, he suggested that she look into getting a weather station at Windmill Island. Obviously this could change everything, not only for Alisa, but for the city of Holland. Imagine having all the local news networks reporting from Holland. Real exposure for the mill and the greater West Michigan region. Everyone wins. Alisa is working on it, behind the scenes, as she goes about her daily routine. To realize the goal she needs grants, then a few more grants.
Alisa can indeed read the sky. However, as she says, “when you’re looking at a storm approaching, watching it come over the sky from the lake, it’s nice to have some additional data.” She goes on to say how the weather station could be great to share with the community. Residents would be able to tune in and watch the windmill as it turns to harness that valuable wind power. Alisa can envision science students from Hope Collage someday benefitting from a weather station, plus elementary-aged kids could begin to learn about the weather. Her goal is to “broaden the perspectives of the way we viewed the windmill in the past, to the potential that it holds for the future.”
Outstanding Alisa. Outstanding.
This is our mill, this is something that we’re really proud of.
When the windmill was originally brought to Michigan it was meant to be an “amazing symbolic structure, that represents the Dutch culture and heritage that this community was founded on. But it was also intended to be a working machine, capable of producing product.” Alisa wants to be sure that “we’re exploring all the facets of the windmill in full capacity so that more people in our community have opportunities to connect and interface with the windmill in new ways.”
The blades in her own mind are always turning. She wants this. A weather station will keep the glorious De Zwaan in front of people’s eyes, even while they are watching the news. Alisa’s hope is that there is greater buy-in within the West Michigan community of the sense that “this is our mill, this is something that we’re really proud of.”
Tangible products made from the mill, on their way to becoming other products. Alisa states, “that can become a way for people to connect, in a real tangible way.” That’s important.
The mill produces a nice stone-ground, whole wheat flour. It comes from a soft white, winter wheat, grown by West Michigan farmers. All local. This flour is sold in a variety of ways. Alisa sells at the retail shop, mainly to the wonderful tourists that visit, usually from April through early October. After Windmill Island Gardens closes for the season, the flour can be purchased via mail order. It gets shipped all over the country often to folks who bought the flour while visiting. They went home and tried it, loved it, and want more. That’s the retail side.
Picking up steam is the wholesale level, and Alisa has several local customers, all using the flour in different ways.
The best chicken in Holland. That’s what The Beechwood Inn is known for. It’s no surprise that the best of the best is a Dutch Broaster Chicken, which uses Alisa’s flour in their breading. De Zwaan can almost be seen out their back window, and it has been supplying the flour to Beechwood Inn for the past 4 years. “It’s the local favorite,” says Russ Shilander, Beechwood Inn’s operations manager. Russ went on to say that supporting local Holland ingredients is what it’s all about. Great food comes from great ingredients, especially when it only has to travel one mile to your plate.
De Boer Bakery, one of Holland’s finest, is a steady user of Alisa’s flour. Jacob De Boer prides himself on offering 100% fresh ingredients in both their bakery and restaurant. The benefits of having a reliable flour producer right here in town cannot be underestimated. Alisa usually approaches Jacob with her current offerings, and he always takes what she has. Jacob claims that her flour is “milled more. It’s softer with a deep rich color. Definitely more hearty.”
Jacob uses the flour in De Boers Oat Bran Bread, the Honey Bee Bran Muffins, and the famous Dutch balkenbri. Buckwheat flour is used as the balkenbri’s binding flour.
Two senior centers, Evergreen Commons and Freedom Village also treat their members to delicacies created using the windmill’s flour.
Evergreen Commons is proud to serve customers with highly refined taste-once you approach the twilight of your life you tend to acquire a discriminating palate. Jeff Miracle, Evergreen’s food service director, has been using Alisa’s flour for the past 4 years. He made the initial switch from the commercial flour to the locally produced flour mainly because it’s healthier, but the local proximity is also a big plus. “Our members love the fact that we use the flour from the windmill,” says Jeff. He goes on to say that you can definitely tell the difference in the muffins made from the windmill’s flour. The Morning Glory and Bran Raisin muffins are heavier and heartier, “a little more dense” states Jeff. The bran raisin muffins use bran from the windmill. Bran is a by-product of Alisa’s milling process, and is healthier than typical white flour. Jeff adds that in the near future he’d like to create a bread that utilizes the windmill’s flour. I’m sure Evergreens 3000 members will love that!
“You are the only miller we know, and we’re calling you to see if you can grind the wheat that we’ve grown here at the farm.”
Outside of Chicago there is a living history farm, called Primrose Farm. The folks at Primrose grew a batch of hard red wheat, which is unusual for our region. It was grown organically and harvested with horses. A big moment for Primrose! A problem arose shortly after for Primrose.
Where do they grind it?
Alisa is a member of ALHFAM, The Association for Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums. Through ALHFAM, Primrose contacted Alisa, and as she remembers, said “you are the only miller we know, and we’re calling you to see if you can grind the wheat that we’ve grown here at the farm.” Well, let’s talk about it, said Alisa.
So, she created a batch specifically for Primrose. Her fee was a portion of the special flour, which she then sold to De Boer Bakery and a woman on the east side of Michigan. De Boer used it to create a very unique bread, which was sold in their retail shop. The eastsider was just getting started with her own organic bakery, and wanted the perfect flour. She definitely found it.
Wheat that’s grown on an old farm, goes through a windmill, then is sold to a local bakery. “That’s pretty great. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it used to be”, says Alisa.
You’ve got to make history relevant. History isn’t interesting until you make it personal.
Alisa, who in 2009 was admitted into the Professional Grain Millers Guild of the Netherlands, is always thinking of the future. She has to. The windmill must always serve a valuable purpose, and it’s her job to see to that. She hopes that the windmill can produce flour for an actual commercial product that people can buy. Something that you can hold in your hand. Something that you can purchase and take home, that can be sold at Windmill Island. Cookies, breads, or basically any tasty baked good. If a local company started to produce something that Windmill Island could sell in their gift shop, that would be ideal.
If you consider the fact that the windmill was originally producing flour, sold in bags only on Windmill Island, it’s amazing to see what is happening today. The production is growing, and Alisa has even bigger and better ideas for the future. From what I gather, she does need a dedicated staff. It’s true, she often receives more inquiries than she can handle. However, she is very careful about whom she chooses and allows access to the flour. She wants her product to be in the right hands. Hands that appreciate. Hands that are capable of producing a product worthy of the old world process. It’s a cautious partnership, and only if both the appreciation and commitment to quality are there will it reach its full potential. Coppercraft made sense, and everyone will reap the reward come Tulip Time.
Alisa has a degree is history. She’s a miller by trade. She has a mind of an entrepreneur. She was recently asked what she thinks is the greatest challenge of the living history business (museums, living history sites, etc). In her opinion “living history sites need to be creative and think outside the box. They must look for potential partnerships within the community that can provide win-win opportunities, as well as additional streams of revenue. With that should come positive publicity.”
“You’ve got to make history relevant. History isn’t interesting until you make it personal. If there’s opportunity for people to relate, or intersect with the past, that’s when it becomes interesting.” Alisa has a great strategy to make this happen. She’s on her way and making great strides towards the goal.
De Zwaan is a working machine that produces a product that can bless our local community, and turn up in unexpected ways and places. Windmill Island Gardens and De Zwaan is not just a place to visit once a decade. It took a miracle to bring it to West Michigan 50 years ago, and we need to remember why the mill was built in the first place — to feed a community. Alisa is doing her part to see to it that we eat well, eat local, and are proud of what we eat.
Windmill Island Gardens will celebrate De Zwaan’s 50th anniversary this year. There will be plenty of reasons to make it down to the Gardens, so get your mother’s recipes out and pick up some of Alisa’s flour. Your family will be happy you did.
April 18th begins the Golden Anniversary Celebration. On the 18th, Windmill Island Gardens will be hosting the mayor for a special tribute, a taste of Dutch Food, and cake competitions between local bakeries. Voting for the people’s choice award will be in hands of Holland residents.
To read about the history behind De Zwaan and Windmill Island Gardens, pick up a copy of Alisa’s new book, available at Windmill Island Gardens, Holland shops, book retailers, and In-Deptheditions.com. Her book will be released on April 18 with all proceeds benefiting the windmill.
Scott Meivogel is a photographer living in Holland, Michigan, via Cleveland, Ohio.
Scott is a photographer, designer, husband, father, and hopeful homesteader.
He’s made a career of his photography and looks at his new home in West Michigan with endless possibilities, both as a photographer and an explorer.
He raises chickens and grows his own food. He also has too many cameras.
He can be found at www.scottmeivogel.com
Reached at email@example.com