You don’t meet many people who are passionate about historic windmills. (I don’t, at least.) This weekend was the exception.
I first started talking to Cecilia about the windmill in Vollsjö sometime last fall over Twitter. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the 140-characters-or-fewer messages I was reading—Does this woman really own a windmill? How? WHY?
In the following months, a few things became clear: she is an expat living in the countryside of Skåne (the southernmost region of Sweden), she is learning Swedish, and yes, she owns a windmill.
From the way Cecilia tells the story, her family’s life story sounds a lot like a romantic comedy mixed with a historical period piece. Add a few vampires into the mix, and you’ve got a best-seller on your hands: multinational couple with family moves into historic building with the best of intentions, weird stuff starts happening, VAMPIRES! And of course there will have to be a girl with a dragon tattoo. (I made up the last stuff. That was not part of Cecilia’s story.)
In real life, Cecilia was born and grew up in Uruguay and studied in the United States as an exchange student, where she met her Danish-Swedish husband, Tobias. They’ve lived all over the place, but when they decided to make their most recent move from the US to Sweden, their house-hunting expedition brought them to the tiny town of Vollsjö (population 836), where they saw a 1906 house with a barn, a silo, and a mill. They fell in love with the mill.
At first, simply renovating and repairing the mill was the top priority. The roof was leaking, the windmill “cap” was badly damaged by moisture, and there were many general repairs that had to be made. As the two of them started making progress, requests started coming in.
[We started getting] asked by people when we were going to open and have events and exhibitions. Some people came and asked about having the place for themselves for exhibitions, a collector wants to exhibit his stuff here, and we had a group of women enquire about opening in our place once a month, so we figured that there was enough interest to move along those lines.
So they gave their year of renovations a tentative deadline: Good Friday (Långfredag) 2012 would be the Grand Opening to the public, timed to coincide with the annual Påskrundan held over Easter. The Påskrundan is a Skåne-wide initiative to open all art galleries and historical areas to visitors over the long Easter weekend.
So off we went to check it out, borrowing a car from Simon’s parents since the regular bus routes out to more rural areas were suspended during the holiday.
As we drove towards Vollsjö, I was reminded of how much more there is to Sweden than the little slice I see in my everyday life.
Instead of cobblestones and apartment buildings outside a bus window, we zipped by open fields and single family homes. There were few bus stops and train stations, which I think of as so crucial to my experience of Sweden; instead, the narrow road brought us through shadowy forests and by little creeks.
Even the gently rolling landscape seemed exotic to me, since my commuter’s view of the countryside is dominated by a series of very flat fields of rapeseed and sugar beet that I pass through on the train. Either that, or I was just so happy about having a high-powered seat warmer that I had become slightly delirious.
One thing you learn about the Vollsjö Mill as soon as you step in the door is that it is something of an import. The mill was originally built in the 1800s in nearby Hörby. In the early 1900s, it was disassembled piece-by-piece, carted over to Vollsjö, and then reassembled on the property where it stands today.
Tobias, Cecilia’s husband, took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the mill to see the renovations they had done.
It’s absolutely unbelievable what they’ve accomplished in this short amount of time, working on this when they have the time, on their own, and on a small budget. For example, the mill cap (the round, dome-like structure on top of the mill) needed to be replaced. Cecilia’s husband built it himself, and a crane set it on its perch with three days to spare before the Grand Opening.
As we walked through the many levels of the mill (and climbed a few rickety staircases), it was obvious how complex and well-thought out the structure had been from the very beginning. In cases where the original builders were unable to depend upon the precision that modern building technology affords, they made do with ingenuity.
In the top right photo in the collage above, for example, you can see two gears fitting together. The gear frames themselves were made out of metal, but the gear spokes were made out of wood. That’s because the gear frames couldn’t be made perfectly round at that time, so if anything happened to the gear and it got stuck, only the relatively inexpensive and replaceable spokes would break and therefore have to be fixed rather than risking breaking the whole frame, which would have been very expensive for the miller.
As Tobias told us more about the mill’s role in Vollsjö over the past century, it became clear that the mill is much more than a special building or a piece of history. It is an essential part of a once-thriving community that used to be a business hub of Skåne, complete with its own train station that stood on the route between Oslo and Ystad.
In the early 1900s, the mill was the linchpin of the community—a place where people gathered, shared news, and conducted business… as well as the town’s main source of gossip (hence the expression “rumor mill”).
Today, Vollsjö Mill is more of a landmark in the town, much the way that Turning Torso is in Malmö. Since Vollsjö’s heyday in the 20th century, the town has shrunk in size and importance compared to neighbors like Sjöbo, but Cecilia and Tobias have hopes that the mill will once again take on a central role in the community.
Tobias told us that the only way for the mill to survive in the long term is for it to take on another purpose besides “monument” or “museum piece.” With that in mind, Cecilia and Tobias are carefully assessing the future.
At the moment, they have an impressive exhibition of Danish artist Richard Winther’s work along with other contributions from area artists. In the future, though, they have high hopes for their cafe and boutique featuring locally-sourced gourmet products, for hosting musical events, and maybe even converting part of the mill to vacation rental accommodations.
After a cup of tea and one last pass through the exhibition area, it was time for us to head off to Vittskövle, another tiny town in Skåne, to meet up with family. Cecilia told me they’ll be holding an exhibition of historic and rare typewriters sometime in the future, though, so I’ll be back.
For more information about Vollsjö Mill or for help planning your visit, check out the following links:
Vollsjö Mill’s Twitter account: @VollsjoMill