Why focus on windmills built for crushing sugar cane?
This website has its origin in a semester project in Dr. Arnold Highfield’s class History of the Virgin Islands taught at the University of the Virgin Islands in the late 1980s. For the semester project, Dr. Highfield suggested that the number of windmills that had ever been built on St. Croix remained unquantified. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Skip forward over 30 years and you now may decide for yourself the true number between 150-160 on 147 different estates (some estates had more than one windmill). As you learn perusing this site, determining the number of windmills remains up to interpretation of historical maps and field findings, since some windmill icons on maps may not have been built where they were depicted and at least one ruin located in the field was not depicted on any map.
Windmills have become a cultural icon on St. Croix. The truncated conical towers have found their way into jewelry, artwork, and logos. Some people have created replicas of these stone towers where sugar was never processed. The structure also found its way into modern architecture at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Windmills are Sugar Mills
While most people recognize sugar mills as a part of St. Croix’s colonial past, many have not seriously considered their role as the center of a manufacturing operation. The term windmills used on this site distinguishes the truncated conical towers from the animal mills and steam mills also used on St. Croix for crushing sugar cane. Few have ventured to systematically explore all of these ruined windmills.
As you can learn more on the sugar cultivation and manufacturing page, windmills served a significant role on many estates. They are relatively easy to locate in the field due to their height and general prominence on hilltops and other notable locations. Finding a windmill often helps locate other colonial-period ruins. Windmills have also endured the ravages of time, likely because they are both massive and round.
The windmills built using enslaved labor have withstood the ravages of time, creating a legacy of a profoundly important industry. The artisanship reflected in the smooth walls, refined masonry, and decorative trim underscores a dynamic and evolving industry. Changes and innovation in the industry are reflected in changes seen in windmills built at various times.
Windmills provide a visible reflection of a brutal past. Chattel slavery of Africans changed the trajectory of millions of lives, unwillingly transported to new lands to perform hard labor. These reflections underline that humans can behave very brutally toward one another, forcibly exploiting another group of people for their material benefit. That said, the Europeans also had difficult lives, existing in constant fear of rebellion from the Africans they had enslaved. Both groups died prematurely from mosquito-borne and other tropical diseases not understood at the most basic level until centuries later.
The Caribbean sugar industry immutably redirected human history through commoditizing sugar, catalyzing global trade, and driving human migration. Important to the legacy of the windmills, the sugar industry refocused the direction of agricultural practices by specializing in a single crop and incorporating both agriculture and manufacturing in the same unit, serving as a stepping stone for industrial agriculture.
How this project was approached
This project involved two main avenues of inquiry. The first involved examining historic maps of St. Croix. In all, a couple dozen unique maps provide the basis for understanding the development of the sugar industry through the construction of windmills on St. Croix. The second involved fieldwork, finding the ruins in the field. This project started prior to Hurricane Hugo, and this hurricane in 1989 provided an opportunity to find ruins that would otherwise be obscured by bush. In fact, the hurricane revealed remnants of windmills not depicted on any maps, such as at Marienhoj (Sally’s Fancy). Many thanks to the property owners who have willingly or unwittingly provided access to the windmills. Since many of the windmills currently reside on private property, keep that in mind if the inspiration strikes you to go exploring.
To document the first iteration of fieldwork, various papers and presentations shared information discovered. Records of this research were provided to the St. Croix Landmarks Society library as a resource for others. A cleanout encouraged by COVID-19 dusted off earlier work and generated renewed interest in sharing the findings about these intriguing structures.
Fast forward the fieldwork 30 years, over which time several hurricanes have visited St. Croix. This time interval provided an opportunity to revisit the windmills of St. Croix to check for deterioration and accessibility. At a superficial level of analysis, the windmill structures do not appear particularly changed during this time. However, bush has grown up, in some cases bush has been cut down, and the security fence salespeople have been quite busy.
This website features research that seems relevant to the people of the Virgin Islands as well as visitors interested in history. This history seeks to engage the general public to learn about observable aspects of history they encounter every day, such as roads, place names, and historical artifacts in ruins like the windmills. In doing so, the hope is to engage people to more seriously consider how we got where we are today, including the favorable and unfavorable aspects. Through these reflections, hopefully engagement and dialog will occur to help people increase their understanding of facts and differences in how they can be interpreted.
The website contains a page for each estate where a windmill for crushing sugar cane may have been built, a total of 147 estates. Individual estate pages can be found by clicking through the link for that estate in the popup in the Google Map on the home page, through the Finding Windmills link on the home page, or through the pages linking from each of the quarters. To learn more about how the photos and map snippets for each estate were chosen, visit the page Selecting Photos & Map Snippets.
For those interested in learning more about specific topics, links included throughout the website provide access to more detailed materials. For instance, links to maps held in archives in Europe and North America provide high resolution scans. The Resources page provides links to library and documentary resources to facilitate learning. Similarly, exploring groups like the Society of Virgin Islands Historians, the Society for Preservation of Old Mills, and The International Molinological Society helps connect people with local history that has global implications.
In the future, expansions of this website will provide increasing opportunities for engagement. Any website is a work in progress. Quite a few windmills remain to be revisited in the coming years to document their current condition. Other imagery, such as drone footage of difficult to reach locations will add perspective. The initial pursuit of this research resulted in thousands of photographs that have been digitized but need to be curated. The curated photos are a planned addition. A sort of community forum to collect memories and facilitate discussions will broaden perspectives on history and how this has impacted people today.
Another future direction for this website encourages academic research on the windmills and other aspects of Caribbean history. Each windmill was measured in a variety of ways. These measurements and other data provide material for the basis of analysis of the sugar industry over a period of centuries.
To help inform these plans, we are eager to hear from users of this site to see how they like it. What interests you in this site? What would you like to see more of? What would you like to see that is not here? Engagement is a huge priority for this website to help people on their own learning journeys.
Nonprofit nature of this site
This project was created by Everything Imaginable Eleemosynary Incorporated Organization (EIEIO), a U.S. 501(c)(3) charitable organization established for the purpose of educational projects and associated fundraising. As a nonprofit, the intent is to redirect any revenues generated back into the enhancement of the website to expand the information presented, enable easier access to historic resources, and create a better user experience.
As a nonprofit, we seek funding to pay for the maintenance and future development of the site. The fieldwork conducted in the 1990s was funded by a grant from the Virgin Islands Humanities Council to pay for the development of photographs and data entry. The development of this website was funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. The principal investigator has never taken any funds from this research and intends to continue to donate his time and expertise to the project.
To facilitate additional funding, this website seeks annual sponsorships for each page along with donations. The details presented on the Donations page provide more information about both efforts.
The core team
Dr. William Cleveland is the principal investigator of this project. He earned his PhD in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University in 2016. His research has always included history as a contextual framework by examining long term changes and trends, since truly little in the world stands still for long. Expanding on the concept that context matters, he reads widely to better understand forces that shape our lives. While memories of his residence in St. Croix are never far, he has resided in thirteen different communities, making him realize that the world has a lot of wonderful people with different perspectives about how the world works. St. Croix holds a special place, since exploring the island in search of historic and natural treasures excites his passions. He is particularly grateful for the patience of his wife Linda and his two daughters, who have endured images of and stories about windmills for decades.
David Tonge is a web developer and designer from St.Croix, USVI who recently moved to the tristate area. David is a creative problem solver with a passion for designing visually stunning and user-friendly websites. He designed and developed the windmill website. He holds a degree in Emerging Media from Hunter College and a degree in Multimedia Design from BMCC.
Dr. Daniel Hopkins has provided immeasurably helpful insights for understanding historic maps. His study of the early Danish maps of St. Croix in the 1730s-1750s, the background of the creation of the maps, and his recognition of the handwriting of specific individuals annotating maps has informed his publications about the history of the Virgin Islands.
Carole Wakefield, librarian at the St. Croix Landmarks Society Whim Museum library, both as a staff member and emeritus volunteer, has provided significant insights and access to materials.
Jeri Hillis provided the artwork for the topographic maps annotated in the 1990s with all historic ruins found in the field at that time. Without these maps, finding all the windmills would be more difficult today.
Orville James made two critical connections for this project, identifying David Tonge as the site developer and the CMC for the Arts as the fiscal sponsor for the grant. Orville not only loves exploring St. Croix, he also has a deep appreciation for history. He has been consistently and proactively supportive as the site has been created, consistently finding people on St. Croix that share his interests.
Intrepid mill explorers have helped with fieldwork over many trips into the bush. This group has included a wide variety of individuals interested in the history of St. Croix and learning about a place they love. Some have family roots stretching back generations where others have only recently discovered St. Croix.
We are very appreciative for the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts serving as the fiscal agent for the grand funding this website development.
Without the inspiration and guidance of Dr. Arnold Highfield, Dr. Alfredo Figueredo, and William Cissell, the initial phase of this project would never have been completed.
Joining in fieldwork and enduring decades of discussion about the windmills of St. Croix, this project was deeply enriched by Linda, Alex, and Hannah Cleveland.