Fort Ross Windmill - The first windmill built in California
Fort Ross had two windmills, both of which were the first windmill west of Mississippi. The first mill was constructed in 1814, not long after the Russians settled Fort Ross. The second mill was built in 1841. The windmills served two purposes: to grind grain into flour for baking bread for both Settlement Ross and the Russians’ Alaskan settlements, and to power the stamping of local tan bark, used in the hide tanning industry. These were very likely the first windmills west of the Mississippi River.
The windmill now standing at Fort Ross is a gift from Link of Times, a Russian-based cultural and historical foundation chaired by Viktor Vekselberg. It was constructed in the Vologda Oblast in Russia, where Ivan Kuskov and other RAC employees were from, and then disassembled, put into two containers, and shipped to California, where it cleared customs and was trucked to Fort Ross in September, 2012, as part of the Fort Ross Bicentennial.
Fort Ross Windmill Turning - Join us once a month for an informal talk about the windmill and its maintenance. See our Events page for upcoming dates and time. Questions? Email Hank Birnbaum firstname.lastname@example.org
Fort Ross Windmill Q & A
Photo by Lisa Gurian
How was the windmill designed, and what is unique
about its construction?
The design was based on the 1841 color painting of Fort
Ross by Ilya Voznesensky. Research by Russian historical
architect Igor Medvedev revealed that the Fort Ross
windmills were similar to “stolbovka” (post) windmills made
at that time in the northern Russian regions of Vologda and
Archangelsk, home to many of the earliest Ross settlers.
While the original windmill was made mostly of redwood,
this Russian reconstruction is primarily pine, with birch
and spruce gears, bracing and other components. The
substantial pine log-frame cribbing base is constructed
around a central post sunk eight feet into the ground,
backfilled with crushed rock.
The windmill, which measures thirty-two feet high and
boasts thirty-eight foot blades, is manually turned on this
central post to face into the wind. The main post and the
twelve radial bollard posts below grade are fire-charred, a
historic technique to reduce wood rot. On top is constructed
the swiveling granary story with gears and four blades to
face into the wind.
The mill was constructed using traditional woodworking
techniques, using axes, adzes, drawknives and wooden pegs.
The entire mill sits on 12 boulders; the force of gravity
and the interlocking of the logs around the center post
provide stability. The bottom logs are scribed to the
contour of the boulders. Birch bark provides the water
proofing membrane to protect the bottom of the logs from rot
where they are in contact with the stones. Hand-forged iron
fittings & braces, as well as two 200-year-old millstones
from old Russian windmills were added to complete the
How does the windmill work?
To operate the mill, the mill house is rotated so that
the blades face into the wind. To stop the mill, there is a
brake to the main gear which stops the blades from rotating.
When harvest season ends, the mill house is rotated so that
the blades are turned out of the wind. The large yoke that
comes from the mill house to the ground allows a team of men
or animals to turn the mill house and also allows the
orientation of the blades to be set and stabilized.
The mill house has two floors. The lower floor houses the
main shaft and the main gear. The upper floor contains the
mill stones and the hopper that feeds the grain into the
mill stones. The two mill stones sit on top of one another
wherein the top stone is supported by its shaft so that it
barely touches the lower stone. The blades turn a series of
gears which turn the top stone against the bottom stone.
Grain is fed through a cloth funnel from a hopper into a
center hole in the top mill stone. The grain is pulverized
by the stones and exits through a chute into a sack or
Brief History of Windmill
The site of California’s
first windmill appears on the 1817 map of Fort Ross. From
this map the windmill is located northwest of the fort on a
rise midway between the northwest blockhouse, the Visitor
Center and Highway One. The windmill is visible on the 1841
watercolor by Russian naturalist and artist, Ilya
Gavrilovich Voznesenskii. There were two windmills at Fort
Ross in 1841, with their millstones, as well as an animal
The original Russian-era millstones are now
located next to the reconstructed windmill, at the southeast end of the upper parking lot.
The millstones, up to
three feet in diameter and one foot thick, were made of
indigenous sandstone. They were once used primarily for grinding flour
at Fort Ross.
The windmills highlight the important agricultural aspect of
the Russian-American Company settlement at Fort Ross. One
important reason for the establishment of the colony was to
grow wheat and other crops for the Alaskan settlements.
The coastal fog, wind,
rocky terrain, gophers and lack of trained agriculturalists
combined to thwart this effort. Although the Company
established three farms at inland sites between Fort Ross
and Port Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay), and
agriculture intensified after sea otter hunting diminished
in the early 1820s, production was still insufficient. Trade
with Spanish and Mexican California was conducted to
increase the food supply to Alaskan settlements, and after
1839 a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company supplied
Russian Alaska with grain and other necessities.
On the hill to the north above the fort, just below the tree
line, you can see the Russian orchard. The original Russian
orchard encompassed two to three acres, and contained
approximately 260 trees at its peak. Fruit trees were
planted to provide for the Ross settlement in the early
1800s, and to supplement other agricultural products such as
wheat and barley grown in California and shipped to the
Russian colonies in Alaska.
Fort Ross Conservancy, a
501(c)(3) and California State Park cooperating association,
connects people to the history and beauty of Fort Ross and Salt
Point State Parks.
Fort Ross Conservancy, 19005
Coast Highway One, Jenner, CA 95450, 707-847-3437