The windmills at the Gifhorn museum have been fostering international understanding and tourism in the region since the museum was opened in 1980. Horst Wrobel, the museum’s founder and the antithesis to Don Quixote, made windmills his friends and turned what was initially a hobby into a life’s work on an international scale.
From Babylon to the Balearics – an innovation that moves the world
It’s hard to believe, but the first windmills built by humankind most likely did not stand on Lower Saxon or even Dutch soil. To date, it hasn’t been possible to pinpoint exactly when the oldest machines driven by a power source other than muscle strength were developed. However, written records from the Babylonians point to a history dating back at least 4,000 years. Regardless of where it was first invented, the concept proved itself and spread across every continent. Countless varieties of mills subsequently developed over the millennia – from the ancient Persian and Chinese models with a vertical rotation axis and simple wooden mills though to the solid stone structures that shape the landscape, with huge sails and rotating roofs, as are typical in Europe.
While mills in China were initially used for irrigation and drainage, they have always helped to mill cereals in Iran and Europe. They often served as oil mills in southern Europe and powered saw mills and hammer mills in other locations. And, thanks to the energy transition, windmills are experiencing a unique comeback around the world as electricity providers after being left to slumber for around a century due to industrialisation.
But, for the time being, only the real ‘classics’ can be observed at the museum in Gifhorn. And they come from all over the world: besides mills from Germany and the Netherlands, the spacious museum site also features examples from Spain, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, France and South Korea. The first mills on display also include a Tyrolean water-powered mill – hence the official name, International Windmill and Watermill Museum. But how did the Südheide region become a mill mecca?
It all began with the mill from the Elm hills
You could say it’s all the fault of master miller Röhl and his mill. Both managed to make a lasting impression on Horst Wrobel, a trained advertising designer and keen model-builder from Braunschweig. The three of them met in the little village of Abbenrode during a trip that Wrobel took through the Elm hills in 1963. They hit it off and, on returning home from his trip, Wrobel got to work, acquired all manner of knowledge about mills and began to build a replica of Röhl’s post mill on a scale of 1:25. But it didn’t end with a single model. Having caught the muse, Wrobel went on to create more mill models – initially in his own home and then later at a small, private museum in Suhlendorf near Uelzen. But Wrobel wanted to go bigger; a scale of 1:25 was no longer enough. Much more space was needed to accommodate his enthusiasm for mills, and the dream of a museum with machines in their original size was born.
A fateful meeting then occurred in Gifhorn in 1977. The district had heard about Wrobel’s museum idea and managed to convince him to collaborate with them. Within three years, the ‘museum landscape’, including a specially created lake, was established on a seven-hectare site on the outskirts of Gifhorn. When it opened on 8 May 1980, an exhibition hall as well as three ‘life-size’ original machines were ready for visitors to admire: the ‘Viktoria’ post mill from the local district, the ‘Immanuel’ smock mill from Dithmarschen and a watermill from East Tyrol. Now, 37 years later, the site is home to 13 authentic replicas from around the world in addition to the three restored originals.
‘Gifhorn’s secret foreign minister’
Given that windmills and watermills are not unique to Germany or even the Netherlands, the museum also needed mills from other countries. Would you have known where to start looking for foreign mills? The Yellow Pages? eBay? No, at least not in the 1990s. Horst Wrobel did something that’s almost unheard of today: he picked up a pen and paper. The first people he contacted, as he recorded in the mill museum’s records, were generally ambassadors from the countries that had mills that interested him. However, he also got in touch with other foreign mill enthusiasts, organisations and even religious organisations. His unusual request met with enthusiasm incredibly often; after all, mills of this kind are ‘threatened by extinction’ around the world and have few allies.
If China still successfully uses pandas to conduct diplomacy today, why shouldn’t the Republic of Korea attempt to do the same with a watermill? The gift from South Korea has graced the museum since 2003. The governor of the Korean province where the mill is located had it reconstructed according to traditional methods and transported by ship to Germany, where the replica was erected by Korean experts. The Korean ambassador even paid an official visit to the museum in 2012. The local press soon christened it ‘Gifhorn’s secret foreign minister’. A title that appears apt, considering the large number of honours bestowed on the museum and its founder over the years.