Little known fact: On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in the days before fossil fuel, there were dozens and dozens of wind-powered gristmills.
Maryland’s Dorchester County alone, by some accounts, had 20 of them. That makes sense when you think about it. The Eastern Shore, with hundreds of square miles of mostly pancake-flat topography, has little fast-moving water, but plenty of wind.
Today, none of the windmills remain, because … well, mostly because of wind. The last of Dorchester County’s windmills blew down in a hurricane in the very early 20th century. That, too, makes perfect sense. In a place that sees more than its fair share of hurricanes and nor’easters, a top-heavy wooden tower built to harness the wind will, sooner or later, succumb to the wind.
Such was the fate of the Spocott windmill, built in the early 1850s at the head of Gary Creek near Cambridge, MD, and destroyed by a late-winter blizzard in 1888. Unlike its many Eastern Shore counterparts, though, the Spocott mill rose again. And it’s open to visitors, along with a handful of 19-century buildings that have been moved to create Spocott Windmill Village.
It wasn’t until 1972, more than 80 years after its demise, that George L. Radcliffe — a two-term U.S. senator (1935-1947) and youngest son of the original windmill’s creator, shipbuilder John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe — managed to resurrect the mill as a monument to his father.
Though the original windmill was only a boyhood memory to Sen. Radcliffe (he was not quite 11 when the blizzard brought it down), rebuilding it was a lifelong dream. As a young man, he made sure that its staircase and millstones were stored in a barn, to be used some grand future day when the mill would be rebuilt.
The reconstruction began to take shape in the late 1960s, as the 90-year-old former senator cobbled together financing — much of it, then as now, coming from the Walter Clay Hill and Family Foundation.
Just as important, the indefatigable senator recruited a true master craftsman for the design and construction of the replica mill. This was the late James B. “Mr. Jim” Richardson, one of the Eastern Shore’s most renowned 20th-century builders of wooden boats and, in particular, historic replica boats. Born and raised within walking distance of the Spocott property, Mr. Jim was a logical choice; he was not only a native son but also a shipwright, just like the original mill’s builder.
“[Richardson] really didn’t have any plans or blueprints to work from,” said the senator’s grandson and namesake, George L. Radcliffe II, a retired science teacher and head trustee of the Spocott Mill Foundation. “All he had to work with was a few old pictures, so he started by building a scale model. And he just figured it out.” And it works. Twice a year, the foundation hosts a “running of the mill” demonstration day — on the third Saturday of October and as part of Dorchester County’s Earth Day celebration, next set for April 21.
“When you see the [windmill’s interior], you’ll see right away that it’s the work of a boatbuilder,” Radcliffe said, as he started an impromptu tour of Spocott village. It began in 1972 as a lone replica windmill, about 100 feet from the site of the original, but is now a small village of restored buildings — a concentrated version of the community that thrived here in the mid-19th century. John Radcliffe, builder of the original windmill, bought the property in 1849, though the landholding and its original house (about a mile away and not open to the public) dates back nearly two more centuries. It was settled in 1662 by Stephen Gary, a Radcliffe ancestor.
The Spocott Windmill Village is just off Hudson Road (Route 343), about five miles west of Cambridge. Nearest the road, at the apex of a long semicircle driveway (with lots of room for parking) is the 1939 Lloyds Store, moved here from its original roadside location. The store, which for several decades also served as the local post office, now functions as the village’s museum. Its main room is chock full of farm implements, tools, glass bottles and other curios and artifacts of the 1800s. A separate room on the west side puts you in the mid-1900s, in what might have been Sen. Radcliffe’s office: a massive double-sided desk, wooden armchairs, bookcases stuffed with bound volumes of official proceedings, and walls covered with portraits, photos, re-election campaign posters and newspaper pages from World War II.
Directly behind Lloyd’s store, beyond a small clapboard cottage that will eventually be furnished as a period doctor’s office, is the 1870 Castle Haven School — also built by John Radcliffe. This beautiful old whitewashed board-and-batten building is where both Sen. Radcliffe and Jim Richardson began their educations. Inside, it exudes the past. With a freshly erased blackboard hanging between two enormous windows on the south wall, afternoon sun pouring in and a scattering of books left on antique desks, it looks for all the world like the rowdy Class of 1895 just finished their arithmetic lesson and stampeded out the door.
Across from the school is another charmer — the Adaline Wheatley House, a diminutive one-and-a-half-story cottage built as a tenant house around 1800. As its name suggests, the cottage is remembered mostly as the home of the Radcliffes’ beloved “Auntie Adaline.” A free black woman born at Spocott in 1847 (likely the daughter of slaves), she grew up to become, for almost 60 years, the Radcliffe’s indispensable chief cook, nanny, household manager, advice giver, raconteur and all-round force of nature. She and her husband, Columbus, who was freed after the Civil War, raised seven children in the tiny house, where Adaline lived until her death in 1929.
At last, near the back of the property, just 10 or 12 yards from the marsh grass lining Gary Creek, we come to the star of the show: the Spocott windmill. It has a whimsical, almost Dr. Suess quality to it. Perched 10 feet in the air, it’s a cartoonishly narrow, two-story board-and-batten house with a steeply pitched roof, a wide off-center door on the first floor and an arched gable window on the second. The whole thing is held up by a single massive center post, about 2 feet thick at its base, and buttressed by four sturdy wooden beams. The post and braces stand on enormous crossed beams, which rest on four concrete-topped brick footers.
On the back of the millhouse, mounted on a thick hexagonal wooden shaft jutting out from the gable, is the four-bladed wind catcher — the sail or sweep, in windmill terms. Each of the sail’s wood-frame blades is rigged with a halyard to raise and lower a canvas cover that gives it wind resistance. At the front of the house, attached to a shallow porch, is a wide staircase descending to the ground; from the center of the staircase, reaching out another 50 or 60 feet, is a long, whitewashed pole that ends in the hub of a metal wagon wheel. Called a tail pole, this giant wheeled lever allows the mill operator to singlehandedly rotate the entire building so that the sail faces the wind.
Inside the millhouse, you find the real action on the second floor, accessed by a very steep set of stairs — a ladder, really. Up there, dominating the cramped space and connected directly to the sail shaft, is a massive, upright wooden “brake wheel.” At its feet, so to speak, is a millstone, a thick stone disk about three feet across, which is turned by the brake wheel’s sideways wooden teeth. This rotating stone grinds the grain against a lower stationary stone, and the resulting meal is channeled to a hopper that funnels it to the room below.
Back outside, Radcliffe pressed his foot into the obviously spongy turf under the tail pole’s wheel and talked about the windmill’s — and Dorchester County’s — biggest problem: sea level rise. “[The wheel] is sinking into the marsh,” he said. As a result, moving the tail pole is no longer one-person job. “We’re going to have to spend some money and build a concrete track that the wheel can turn on.”
And 20 or 30 years from now, he continued, the Spocott foundation will likely face a truly existential dilemma for the windmill: Move it or lose it. “Even the most conservative estimates [of sea level rise] say that in 75 years, half of the county will be under water,” Radcliffe said, looking out at the creek that is slowly eating away the dry land.
That’s particularly true of the southwestern reaches of Dorchester, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s online sea level rise tool shows that this neck of land west of Cambridge is the next most vulnerable portion of the county. Even the “low-intermediate” scenario, defined as 1 foot of sea level rise by 2040, shows Gary Creek swallowing nearly half of the Spocott property — the first to go being the windmill itself and the Adaline Wheatley House.
Worrisome as that is, Radcliffe remains philosophical. If the worst predictions come to pass, he said, Dorchester County will have far more pressing concerns than saving a replica windmill. His more immediate concern is volunteer manpower.
The foundation’s cadre of local volunteers has steadily dwindled in recent years, and Radcliffe wondered out loud how much longer they can keep the figurative lights on. “It just seems harder and harder these days to find people who care about this kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe people just don’t have time for it anymore. I don’t know. It’s kind of sad.”
The grounds of the village, as well as the Castle Haven School and Adaline Wheatley House, are open to visitors daily, year-round. Until recently, all of the buildings were open 1– 4 p.m. Sundays. But now, given the shortage of volunteers, Radcliffe said that visitors and groups who want to go inside the store and windmill should make prior arrangements by calling 410-228-7670.
So, for now, you can see and touch this one-of-a-kind Eastern Shore windmill, built during the last century to honor a man from the century before that. But 30 years from now, who knows? It may be swallowed by the tide, or it may, like its 19th-century forebears, be gone with the wind.