Mostert’s Mill

Postcard of Mosterts Mill

Late this morning, on our way home, we drove past Mostert’s Mill on the M3. I drive past this mill every day, and I’ve hardly ever seen it working. Today, though, the sails were up and turning at a steady rate in the southerly wind.

I’d recently seen a flyer at the Millstone farmstall in Oude Molen, which mentioned that the Friends of Mostert’s Mill (FoMM) operate the mill more or less every Saturday, depending on the weather and whether there are enough millers available. Who knew that we still had millers in Cape Town?!

Intrigued, we decided to drop in for a tour.

And what an interesting experience it was!

We were welcomed at the gate by a bearded elderly gentleman. Before we were allowed in, we not only had to complete a ‘membership’ form, but also to sign an indemnity – basically to say that we wouldn’t hold the FoMM or the Department of Public Works (which is in charge of the Mill) liable if we got whacked on the head by the revolving sails.

While we were waiting for our tour to begin, there was a sudden rush of visitors, so we were a fairly large group when our friendly tour guide appeared. According to the nametag pinned to his white and appropriately flour-dusted overalls, his name was Brad. He was one of the trained volunteer millers.

He first gave us a run-down of the history of the Mill, explaining that it had been built in 1796, which means it is over 200 years old. In the 18th century, the Dutch East India Company exerted strict control over who was allowed to build and operate mills.

It was built on the farm Welgelegen on the slopes of Devil’s Peak down to the Lieesbeek River valley. The farm was owned at the time by Gysbert van Reenen. In 1823, Van Reenen’s son-in-law acquired the farm from him. The mill is named after said Sybrand Jacobus Mostert. The mill was no longer operational by 1873, a mere 50 years later, and by the time that Cecil John Rhodes bought the farm in 1891, the mill had become derelict. It languished in a sorry state until 1935, when the Public Works Department appointed a Dutch millwrighting firm (to ‘put the mill [w]right’ – ouch! bad pun!). Unfortunately, despite the excellent work done, the mill was only operational for a couple of years, before it was abandoned once more.

Only in 1995, a half a century later, did the Public Works Department attempt to restore the mill for a second time… using the same Dutch millwrighting firm. And currently, the Friends of Mostert’s Mill are doing their utmost to maintain and look after the mill and the adjacent threshing floor, and to educate local and foreign visitors about this truly historical building in the middle of our city.

Brad, our guide, explained that the sails could be turned into the wind, by turning a huge, heavy metal wheel. Right at the top of this cylindrical ‘truncated tower mill’ is a revolving cap with a thatched roof on top; this rotates on the stationary limewashed base of the building. Apparently it is a Dutch design.

He also demonstrated the use of the ‘brake line’, which is a loooong rope that hangs down from a long metal pipe that juts out from the roof. This is used to slow down the sails and to bring them to a standstill. I wonder what happens in a storm-sterkte wind?!

We walked over to the other side, from where we watched the four sails rotating smoothly in the wind. Our guide impressed upon us that we were not allowed anywhere near the moving sails, as they could give us a serious klap on the head. Kill us, more likely… Just walking past these big heavy wooden sails, looking up and seeing them almost fall down towards me with a rushing sound, was enough to make me step smartly backwards another yard.

Preparing the sails

Brad told us that the mill’s sails could be serviced from the ground (called a Grond Zeile) and showed us that they had unfurled the canvas on only two of the sails. I asked him, naively I guess, how they did that. He chuckled and said that, when the sails were stationary, they just climbed up on the cross-struts – “it’s like climbing a ladder”. Depending on how strong the wind is, and how fast they want the sails to rotate, they decide how much canvas to unfurl, while the rest remains tied up.

Then he took us inside. Another volunteer miller was busy packaging the wheat flour into small paper bags, which could be bought by visitors. Our group (which included some very lively children who were scarily unfrightened by heavy-weight moving machinery) tramped up the wooden stairs onto the second floor.

Here, Brad explained to us the workings of the two millstones. The bottom (fixed) one is called the bedstone and the top one is called the runner. The stones have to be re-dressed (!) from time to time, and sometimes there is a bit of grit in the flour from the stones. Then there’s a wooden funnel down which the grains slide, which is called the ‘damsel’. Why the ‘damsel’? “Because it never stops talking,” he said. Hrmpf.

The next floor is rather small because a huge wooden wheel takes up pretty much all the space. The sails spinning on the outside turn a big heavy wooden beam, which turns a wheel with odd spikes on it. I can’t remember exactly how all the parts worked together, but it was an extraordinary sight to behold.

Next time, I want to check out the poster-display next to the open-air threshing floor. Anyone keen to come along?

Sideview of Mosterts Mill

Entrance costs R10 per person for the day, but only R20 for membership for an entire year – plus the knowledge that you are ensuring the preservation of the Mill for posterity. I suppose the risk is that they might want to train you up as a miller?

So if you’re a big hulking fella who doesn’t mind hefting around a couple of heavy sacks of wheat, rye and barley, which is sure to impress the damsels, go ahead – give them a call!

See here for the numbers to call to find out when the mill will be operating. For more on windmills in general, see Wikipedia.

According to the South African Turtle e-zine there are in fact THREE windmills in Cape Town, i.e.

  • Mostert’s Mill on the M3 near the University of Cape Town
  • Onze Molen Mill in Durbanville
  • Nieuwe Molen Mill on the grounds of the Alexandra Hospital in Maitland.

But Mostert’s Mill is described as “the only working windmill in Africa, south of the Sahara”. Awesome, hey? And it’s right on our doorsteps.

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