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A relic reborn: 60-foot windmill in Southold restored after years of neglect

09/17/2015 9:00 AM |

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For more than 100 years, a windmill has towered over the Tuthill farm property in Southold, spinning away in the breeze. 

And thanks to some recent repair work high atop the tower, that shouldn’t change anytime soon.

The structure — one of the few once-ubiquitous windmills left on the North Fork — was restored to working condition Sept. 5 after years of neglect.

“People are interested in it,” said owner Lorna Tuthill. “People would stop and look at it and ask if they could buy it.”

It’s not for sale.

“That would be a silly thing to do,” she said. “It belongs here. The barn is still here. The old house is still here. The windmill belongs here.”

The windmill was built in 1904 by Ms. Tuthill’s father-in-law, Harold. It was originally used to pump water from a well to irrigate nearby crops.

“It’s really quite a thing of beauty on its own,” Ms. Tuthill said. “It stands out against the sky.”

The antique had previously been restored by Ms. Tuthill’s husband, Donald, in October 1985. For years it turned in the wind, though its pumping days were long over.

Owls took up residence at the top of the tower, but left after nearby developments took away their hunting grounds.

“They couldn’t raise a family here,” Ms. Tuthill said.

The windmill had been neglected since 2005, when Mr. Tuthill died; recently, after lasting storm damage, the structure had been creaking and groaning in the breeze.

“It hadn’t been maintained, but still would operate as a weather vane,” Ms. Tuthill said. “It began to make noises and be sort of destroying itself … Every once in a while it would clank against something.”

Two weeks ago, Ms. Tuthill brought in Long Island technology teacher Karl Spielmann, who agreed to take on the job of repairing the windmill.

Fixing a windmill poses an interesting challenge, Mr. Spielmann said.

Lorna Tuthill of Southold said her husband, Donald, restored the windmill in 1985. Donald (right) was pictured with his father Harold during the last restoration. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder/File photo)

Lorna Tuthill of Southold said her husband, Donald, restored the windmill in 1985. Donald (right) was pictured with his father Harold during the last restoration. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder/File photo)

In the past, Mr. Spielmann had restored a tractor and old trucks, including an antique Dodge Power Wagon. But he’d never repaired a windmill before.

“It’s like fixing a car, but up in the air,” he said. “It’s not quite an airplane in terms of maintaining it, but things do spin pretty fast up there … It’s really a pretty neat mechanical device.”

The heyday of windmills — when they were used for milling or pumping water — has long passed. But across the Midwest, farmers and landowners who want to harness wind energy are turning to the tried-and-true structure, specifically the same design as Ms. Tuthill’s, Mr. Spielmann said.

“It was designed 100 years ago and it hasn’t changed much,” Mr. Spielmann said. “It’s quite an active Internet business, buying and selling these things.”

Mr. Spielmann and a few helpers used a bucket truck to reach the top of the 60-foot-tall tower two months ago to determine the extent of the repairs.

Hurricane Sandy had damaged the windmill slightly, and sheet metal in the tail vane had to be replaced. Mr. Spielmann greased the windmill, ensured the brake — which would prevent it from spinning in high winds — worked, and cleaned off any rust.

Ms. Tuthill had asked that the windmill not just be “aesthetically pleasing,” but also functional, should she want it to turn and pump water again. So two weekends ago, Mr. Spielmann brought back the bucket truck and spent about five hours making the fixes.

The view, he said, was incredible.

“It’s a different perspective,” he said.

Mr. Spielmann said he hopes other residents with windmills on their land, few as they may be, will follow Ms. Tuthill’s example.

“If there are other windmills around, I’d like to see how many more we can get into operation,” he said. “I think it’s a nice tribute to the farming community out here.”

Photo Caption: Karl Spielmann works on one of the blades of the windmill (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

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