BRIGGS' WINDMILL HISTORY
Here you will discover the exciting and detailed history of 'Protect Our Past' founder Ellen Briggs' historic family windmill, located in Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Every passionate preservationist has a fascinating story to tell. What is yours?
It began in 1929- or did it? We are not sure. My Great Uncle Herbert Wilfred Briggs and his wife, Helen T. Briggs, commissioned well known Boston architects to design and oversee the building of a guest windmill built out of shipwreck beams found in the seas off of the east coast of Cape Cod, a well-known underwater ship graveyard. Originally, Great Uncle Herbert and Great Aunt Helen became owners of land extending from Shore Road to the waterfront in the 1920s. After building their main house, for some reason at some time one of them said, "Let’s build a windmill guesthouse along the beach." Why a windmill? And why were salvaged ship’s timbers covered with barnacles used? Why was it built like a ship using ship’s knees to strengthen this eight-sided structure? Many years have been spent digging for answers.
Thanks to a 'House Beautiful' article featuring our windmill that was published in July 1932, we do know that the architects were Edward Sears Read and Charles Everett. The former, a Harvard architect graduate whose grandfather was the famous Boston architect, Willard T. Sears, had designed other houses on Cape Cod- including the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club. Quite possibly he designed the Herbert and Helen Briggs’ Shore Road home in the late 1920s. Charles Everett was better known for his work in Hingham, outside of Boston. Unfortunately, records of builders were not kept by the town of Chatham, so, consequently those facts are lost to us. So the question remains, "Who thought and developed the concept of building an iconic windmill out of sea soaked white oak, commonly used by shipbuilders, with the whaling and schooner ship theme?"
The Briggs' Family Outside of Their Windmill
In the meantime, let’s take a walk through the windmill as it was first furnished and used by my Briggs family. What you first saw when walking in the south entrance double-dutch door was a room built like a ship, from the beams covered with barnacles, and to the numerous ship knees hand made from the Hackmatac trees of Maine which sat at right angles to the old white oak weathered walls. To the right, covering three of the 8 sides of the living room, were large paned windows framing views of the Chatham Harbor waters and its barrier sandbar functioning as a blockade for the Atlantic Ocean. Beneath these windows lay built-in red and yellow calico upholstered covered benches. We sat there often as they served as seats for our old long plank well-worn table rumored to be from a ship. The table proved to be the epicenter for our major indoor activity- game playing. On the other side was a long crafted wooden bench which provided seating for many more to join us. For hours and hours backgammon, board games, and every card game you can imagine kept us busy on rainy days. Opposite this table of activity was a most unique and inviting fireplace. Framed by field-stone, the mantle-piece consisted of a plank of wood which was crafted as a thin box. What caught one’s eye most in this room was the gracious modest ship’s figurehead looming over the fireplace. All that we know about her now is that due to her dress, she was probably the wife of the original captain.
The floor-boards were 12 inches wide, made of white pine. They were pegged together and today are as solid as ever. All of the walls consisted of aged weather-worn wood creating a rustic, genial ambiance. There was one more daily use of our antique gathering table- dinner. If my sisters and I took a vote today, we would probably agree that the most memorable feature of this windmill was its dumb waiter. In the narrow short hall extending from the living room was a cupboard-like door which exposed a small two-story shaft, big enough for a large wooden tray. All we had to do to pull the ropes to lift it up or let it down to the kitchen below. Once dinner was ready, the food was place on this tray along with plates and silverware. Up and down it went, sometimes with mischievous children in it!
And now it is time to walk upstairs to where my sisters and I slept. In it were two ship’s beds, one on top of the other, with an authentic 1800s ship’s ladder used to climb up to the upper bunk. A folding army cot was my pad, and I loved it as it was placed under one of the four windows exposing the moon and stars on clear evenings. Again, barnacles on the beams reminded you of this mill’s origins. One could easily imagine sleeping on a schooner while there. We always felt safe and secure there, especially during storms. Whether up or downstairs, our windmill proved to be a social safe haven for friends, always a fun time. What needs to be added is that this mill served as a reading room as well. When we weren’t playing inside or out, we curled up in the rocking chair, on the covered benches or in our beds with books. Perhaps it was because of the warmth the beams and walls provided, or that they absorbed sound so well providing a comfortable quiet old library mood.
Oh yes, why do we call it a mill more often than a windmill? Just before 1950, after being battered by nor’easter winds causing them to fall off and be re-positioned repeatedly, these sails were permanently removed. They had served as mill decor, not having a function. Because of the size of this structure, these sails were larger than normal. However, their wooden mechanisms remained housed in its dome and a window space is still there for a possible return.
Now we are looking at saving this mill. The most recent purchaser of the property did not want it. The town of Chatham’s Historical Commission put an 18 month demotion delay on it as they valued its history and unique iconic architecture. Quickly I learned that no one knew the Briggs history behind this windmill. “I knew there had to be a story behind it but …,” was the common mantra. It sat just two football fields away from our home on Briggs Way and yet no one knew. After a few calls, within a day I met with the writer of the article, the President of the Chatham Historical Commission and the project manager of the owner of the property it had been sitting on for 88 years. Hence the journey of rescuing the "Wind n’ Light" began!
Rather than taking you step by step through all the hoops of the almost two year process needed to move the Briggs Windmill onto the 72 Shore Road Briggs property, I will summarize it here as best possible.
Months were spent meeting with the following:
- Jack Connolly, the representative for the family now owning it on 66 Briggs Way who committed to move it to its new location. He stepped up above and beyond to insure this iconic historical windmill would be saved and properly moved to our property.
- Frank Messina, President of the Chatham Historical Commission, steered the process of arranging for the mill to meet the requirements for this move. This Commission was dedicated to saving this windmill.
- Bob Lear, a board member of the Chatham Historical Commission, retired lawyer and friend, who guided us through the challenges.
- Tim Wood, Editor, Cape Cod Chronicle, wrote multiple articles over time about the progress of saving the Briggs windmill thereby alerting the community of its progress.
- Clark Engineering who measured precisely where the windmill could be placed on our property.
- The Chatham ZBA Board granted us the needed 1’9“height variance.
Concluding all the paperwork required, meeting with all necessary and preparing for the reality of housing a windmill took one week short of 18 months. Without dedicated tenacity, it would never have happened. There are few words to express the continued dedication of those involved in this adventure. At last it was time to shake loose what was left of the original Briggs windmill home, the core octagon and attached hallway. On a freezing cold February day in 2017, the moving crew began pounding holes through its original basement foundation. These were shaped so steel beams could be slid through them under the flooring of the living room serving as a base for the structure. It was a sad and glad day. To watch the destruction was painful, to know it was done to move it was exciting.
Who knew that in order to be part of a team who lifts and moves houses, you have to be able to play Jenga with dozens of very heavy 4 foot long, 6”x 6” beams? It turns out that your most critical tool is your level. It was a painstaking, long and laborious process, especially during days of 30 degrees temperatures with fierce Northeast winds coming from the sea. Once all was it should be, steel wiring was connected to this carefully woven steel base so a bobcat could pull the mill. Inch by inch it was ever so slowly moved off its former foundation. It took several unfriendly winter days for them to gently place the windmill into the southwest corner of the 66 Briggs Way property. For 12 months it sat there weathering four Cape Cod seasons, waiting.
The mill looked dejected as it had been ignored and empty for a year. At last it was time to bring it home. Faithfully, the movers repeated the Jenga moving process, with an emphasis on placing large wheels under it for easy movement. Angle by angle, they stealthy turned it 180 degrees so it was facing the hill it had to climb out of the 66 Briggs Way property. Pulling this 24’ in diameter octagon, up a 15’ high angled dirt road was the most daunting part of this move. Finally, it was time to ever so carefully slide the mill sitting onto a web of steel beams which continue to serve to support the mill. Cross wiring was positioned to reinforce its stability. Of course, there was much more work to be done. The foundation had yet to be poured, standard procedure.
This move to our property was periodically delayed during the 2018 March series of crazy snow and wind storms, including one with over 100 mph winds. The day before that one arrived, worried movers returned to reinforce the windmill’s standing. Extra steel beams and wiring were positioned to thwart hurricane forces winds. Cross boards were added. No one wanted the mill to have come this far only to be toppled by 24 hours of high force winds. The first two calls I received after the storm had ceased, after I had found a signal for my phone… all our power was out… were from the mover supervisor and Jack Connolly, “Is the mill still standing?” I was happy to report it was!
Using plumb lines and measuring tapes, the octagonal shaped floor mold for this foundation was formed by placing boards measured perfectly into position. Loose cement was then gently poured into it, with the workers spreading this river of wet of concrete around until it evenly reached the top edges of the boards. One by one, each was affixed to the adjacent one as they stacked them vertically around the eight sides, one the inside and one on the outside of the hardened cement base. They were positioned so when the cement was poured into this mold, none would pour down the sides. Between the blocks of cribbing, all the crisscrossed steel beams plus the standing molds, it was very tight fit. On cue, down this spout poured rivers of wet concrete. Energetic experienced hands used tools to insure it was spread evenly around the entire diameter removing all bubbles. The time had come to remove the foundation molds, to unhook them, and place them back on a truck. What was left behind was a well-formed foundation which would also serve as a basement for the windmill. And there it stood, the windmill was free at last sitting tall on its own, on its foundation. It was a long coming sight to behold witnessed by some of the original key players of this saga.
At last, it was ready to be restored to its original glory, though as a more modest version. Now it was time to heal it from the outside in. The best team to be given this responsibility was the Goff Brothers crew. As they descended upon our property, their eyes and passion for historical unique structures was acutely evident. Eyes wide open they had never seen anything like it before. They were fascinated with the ship building visuals as well as the many other historical features already described.
What is left is the heartbeat of this historic structure, the eight-sided windmill, the front door, its hall and the bar area. The rest is gone. We are so ever grateful we could rescue what remains. Because the original door to the windmill and the section of my parent’s bedroom were demolished a long time ago, replaced by more modern sections, both areas had to be restored. The windmill doorway was built to replicate the original one. A window with original shutters painted the original color was built into the closing of that end of the structure. All the outside was examined and repaired as needed. In time, the work of restoring the inside will be completed. There is much to do in order to restore the original inside of this “one of a kind” historic iconic windmill which is now named “Wind n’ Light.”