Winds of Change

Preserving Grand Turk’s windmills before their history “blows away.”

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, President, Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation

In 1997, I took an interest in the windmills of Grand Turk. Perhaps it was a result of curiosity generated by the stories Sherlin Williams told me about how complicated it was to keep them operating in the “olden days,” when salt was still king. In any case their forlorn ruins still dotted all the salinas, begging exploration. The guided tour Sherlin led us on started with a wade across slime-coated rocks to look at the ruins of two very different windmills marooned in the flooded Town Salina. Although few appreciate it now, the surviving salinas, windmills, and canal systems on Grand Turk represent the last vestiges of an engineering marvel designed to convert the one raw material the island possesses in limitless quantities—seawater—into salt using the free and unlimited energies of the sun, wind, and tide.

Four-poster windmill operational in Grand Turk in the 1960s.

Four-poster windmill operational in Grand Turk in the 1960s.

Sea salt forms naturally in the low areas of the Turks & Caicos called “salinas” from the Latin root for salt. Although today it is a cheap and widely available commodity world-wide, throughout most of the past it was a coveted, scarce resource. The topography of Grand Turk was ideally suited for the production of salt. The entire modern landscape of Grand Turk is the result of centuries of modification to enhance salt production. You can imagine the original Bermudian settlers looking around and saying, “Hey, we could rake up this salt and sell it!” And a few years later, “Hey, we could make more salt if we dug a canal to let more water in when the tide is high!” And later, “Hey, we could make more salt faster if we penned up the water in ponds and moved it from one pond to the next to concentrate the salt content!” Then, “Hey, we’ve got so much salt we need carts to haul it in . . . and donkeys to pull the carts!” It was a process of natural formation, human enhancement, industrialization, decline, and demise.

Windmill Watching
This cursory survey revealed to us that the windmills of Grand Turk are of at least two different designs, each with different sizes and all showing evidence of repairs and modifications—clear evidence of long use with a diminishing interest in maintenance toward the end. Later in 1997, Ships of Discovery sponsored a two-pronged research project designed to map the locations of all the windmill sites on Grand Turk and thoroughly measure, draw, and photograph the best-preserved example still standing. The objective was to make a sufficiently detailed record of the tattered remains so that an accurate model or even full-scale replica could be made in the future.

1960s image of the last days of Grand Turk's salt industry; carousel windmill in the background

1960s image of the last days of Grand Turk’s salt industry; carousel windmill in the background

We found the remains of twenty windmills of two different types based on configuration: “four posters” and “carousels”. No two were quite the same and there was a lot of variation in size. The best-preserved example was a four-poster we named “Derek.” It was also the largest. This is the one we documented in detail over a several day period. The timber frame base design was simple: Four legs, four upper connecting beams, and five lower connecting beams. The depth of sediment that had accumulated around the base made it impossible to obtain an overall length of the legs, so we could not determine whether they were embedded in bedrock or merely standing on it.
Several of the legs and upper connecting beams still bore Roman numerals on their inner surfaces, apparently to enable the windmill’s builders to match the tenons in the beams with the appropriate mortises in the legs. Such markings are only necessary if the windmill is fabricated in one place and erected in another. It is tempting to hypothesize that the timber frames for the windmills, if not the entire windmills, were pre-fabricated elsewhere and shipped to Grand Turk as “do-it-yourself” windmill kits.
Although the timber frame legs of the windmill appeared from a distance to be massive and strong, in fact they were badly weathered and damaged. The southwestern leg was repaired long ago using an inferior wood that had practically disintegrated and was no longer supporting the platform. Each windmill sat astride a cleverly engineered, elaborate nexus of canals and shunts which enabled it to move water and brine from one pond to another.
The “carousel” windmill type, so-named for its resemblance to the circus ride, was much different. Instead of having wooden blades turning on a horizontal axis, it had sails turn on a vertical axis. No trace of the sails or rigging remained. Had it not been for an old postcard showing one of these windmills in operation, we would still be trying to figure out how it worked. Unfortunately, no specimen of this type was found in a sufficiently well-preserved state to warrant recording. Evidently, they were less popular and abandoned earlier than the four-posters.
Because the Town Salina is now purposefully kept flooded, very little of the complex system of wall, canals, gates, wooden conduits, and windmill-driven pumping stations is visible above water. A big surprise to us once we started tromping around on the tops of the walls was the network of intricate wooden canals lying hidden under water. In some places they resemble highway overpasses!
Another surprise was the wildlife we encountered during our survey. The salinas, abandoned and neglected for half a century, are now home to a wide variety of plants and animals that depend on them for their existence. We saw wading birds such as egrets, flamingos, and herons stalking minnows and tiny crustaceans in the shallows. Diving birds like pelicans and terns feed on larger prey in the salinas’ deeper settling ponds. Other birds like sandpipers and stilts make their nests on the exposed stone walls, and ospreys occasionally build their aeries in the tops of derelict windmills. Brine shrimp, crustaceans, and various insects thrive in the salinas despite their elevated salt content. Found nowhere else on earth, the national flower, Turks Island heather, grows only around the salinas, as does the extremely rare, low, woody plant species Borreria.

Putting it together

1:12 scale windmill model of "Derek" built by Ships of Discovery

1:12 scale windmill model of “Derek” built by Ships of Discovery

Given that Derek’s cast iron turning head and driveshaft elements were at the top of a fifteen-foot A-frame, it was difficult to obtain accurate, detailed measurements of them. But during our general survey we noticed that a collapsed windmill in the North Salina was a four-poster very similar to Derek. If we could fish the heavy cast iron mechanical elements out of the water we could take them back to the lab and document them there! A call to the utility company brought a truck with a lift arm to the site and a few minutes later the rusting, reeking, rotting assembly was in the “wet lab” where Sherlin was waiting to begin cleaning, disassembly, and documentation.
We did not find any markings that would tell us where or by whom these parts were made, but we did learn a lot about how they worked. Because they were submerged in super-saline water for decades, we knew they would need a treatment called electrolytic reduction to draw out the salts that cause on-going corrosion, followed by coating with POR-15, a commercial product that prevents metals from reacting with water vapor in the air. Museum volunteer Jerry White monitored these processes faithfully for 24 months before they were complete.
In the meantime, Ships of Discovery model-maker Juan Rodriguez used the information from Derek and the “donor” windmill to make an exact 1:12 scale fully functional model, on exhibit in the Museum since 1998. The cleaned and conserved cast iron parts are in storage, awaiting the day when they can be put back into service on an authentic replica windmill dedicated to the generations of Turks Islanders who worked in the salt industry and made Grand Turk a household word world-wide.
The history, landscape, architecture, culture, people, and economy of Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos were shaped by the salt trade, a source of wealth and prosperity for these small, largely barren islands that made them the envy of all their neighbors. But now the tide has turned, and what was once their greatest asset is at best just a curiosity, and at worst an eyesore and a liability.

Why don’t they rake salt here anymore?
Following a long, slow decline, the salt industry in the Turks & Caicos Islands came to an end in the early 1960s. Huge, mechanized sea-salt production facilities elsewhere in the world, including Great Inagua in the Bahamas, rendered salt production in the Turks & Caicos obsolete. It is frequently suggested that salt production could be revived on a small scale, producing only enough to sell to the endless supply of tourists provided by the Grand Turk Cruise Ship Center. This is easier said than done. Raking salt on a small scale is unlikely to be profitable for a variety of reasons, even for a “boutique” business model.
New construction and land reclamation projects as well as the ravages of time are eradicating the machinery and facilities used in salt production and even the salinas themselves. On Grand Turk, already large portions of the Town, North, and South Salinas are being filled in, and the last salt warehouse, built of native stone and massive ships’ timbers, was razed decades ago. Contemporary attitudes at best ignore these vestiges of the past, and at worst actively seek to eradicate them; yet the legacy of the salt industry is what makes these islands different from hundreds of other similar islands in the Bahamian archipelago and elsewhere in the Caribbean. They give Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos unique character—something most other islands are sadly lacking. Only on Salt Cay is there some awareness of the potential asset the vestiges of the salt industry represent. It is difficult to find a person alive today in the Turks & Caicos Islands who actually worked in some aspect of the salt industry. Although the trade continued into the 1960s and is well-recorded historically, when the last actual participant passes away, the opportunity to learn how it worked on a day-to-day basis will disappear.

Salt workers: Who were they?
Salt-raker homes and historic structures contemporary with the salt industry should also be identified and inventoried. When possible, they should be recorded and documented with respect to location, architecture, building materials used, and ownership succession. Most of the old photos and descriptions just talk about the salt rakers themselves, but there were many other people doing a wide variety of jobs.
Salt production employed almost everyone on Grand Turk. The old photos show people actually raking salt into vast mountains of “white gold,” but the business required a wide variety of skills and abilities. There were carpenters, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights employed in building and maintaining the windmills, water gates, and carts that carried the salt. There were donkeys to be fed, watered, and cared for. Stone masons were needed to build, maintain, and repair the double walls that separated the pans. Shipwrights built and maintained the fleet of small boats manned by lighter men who ferried the precious cargo out to ships waiting in the anchorage. At the top of the pyramid were the merchants and “office workers” who kept the books, paid the bills, received payment for cargoes shipped out, marketed their product abroad, and decided budgets.

It’s not too late!

Many Grand Turk windmills were torn down and discarded.

Many Grand Turk windmills were torn down and discarded.

Although many of the walls that separated the salinas into individual salt pans have been removed and used for modern construction, the configuration of all the salinas, how they were divided, where the gates and conduits were, and how they produced in concert can be worked out by comparing old aerial photographs and maps with surviving physical remains of canals, walls, gates, and mills.
The canal, gate, salina, and windmill infrastructure on all the Islands has declined beyond the point of reviving even one functional example. This is why we decided to save, clean, and conserve the irreproducible cast iron parts of the mill that had already toppled into the North Salina, and thoroughly document the best preserved windmill still standing in the Town Salina. But an inventory of all the windmills is needed, containing basic dimensions of each mill as well as photographs, sketches, and notes on type, orientation, function, and location. High-definition aerial photos can be used to map the locations of the walls between the pans, canals, nodes, and windmills. Major iron components such as gears, drive shafts, blade hubs, and pivot heads should be salvaged, cleaned, and conserved.
The best we can hope for is to preserve the knowledge of what windmills once looked like and how they worked. Different parts of this knowledge are preserved in different places. The most volatile parts are those preserved only in the half-century old memories of actual participants—memories not only of how the brake on a windmill worked and when to use it, but also stories of people, places, and events specific to the Turks & Caicos Islands, such as Sherlin Williams’ account of a prank children played on their elders: releasing the brake on a windmill and hiding in the bush to watch the brakeman come running.
And that’s what the TCI National Museum does. It collects and preserves objects and the knowledge of what they mean. For us, a non-functional faux windmill thrown up to attract tourists not only misses the point entirely; it is an insult to the past. One of the reasons for writing this article is so that the Museum can give a copy to the next person who calls up asking for plans they can use to build a windmill. Sure. But first, read this story! If you’re going to spend the time and money to erect and operate a windmill, do it for the right reasons, do it right—and dedicate it to all the men and women who lived on Grand Turk and participated in the salt industry over the last 200 years!

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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