The Grinding Mill Old Nieuw Amsterdam 177


Listen to the Story

I have long been fascinated by Washington Irving and his attempt to create a unique American folklore that celebrated the spiritual values he found in Early America. Unlike the Brothers Grimm and other Europeans of his century, he did not attempt to find the spiritual essence of his people in their ancient folktales.

How could he? America did not really have a folklore. The early colonists who were now American citizens did not bring their traditional beliefs and stories with them to the New World. Or, as later folklorists would remark: The Fairy Folk seemed not to have boarded the ships that sailed to America.

Yet, Washington Irving himself was fascinated in the Dutch traditions of New York. In the memories of old “New” Amsterdam, he found materials that he hoped he could adapt to the new republic. “Rip Van Winkle” and the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” were his attempts to create a literature and a mythology for the fledgling republic.

Today’s story, which he called the “Grinding Mill,” is a lesser known tale by Irving. It has all the characteristics of a folktale, and it is set in his favorite literary landscape -- the Dutch community of New Amsterdam. But, in fact, it is based on an old Orkney folktale that Irving probably heard from his family. (His father had emigrated to America from the Orkney Islands off the north shore of Scotland.)

In my recent trips to Orkney, I learned that one of the world’s great and dangerous whirlpools, called “Swelkie”, swirls near the islands and destroys boats that venture too close. And, it is the setting for an Orkney tale that explains why the sea is salt.

In Orkney, it is said that a grinding mill lies at the bottom of the sea. Long ago, it ground out gold and silver, but now it only grinds out salt. At least that is the Orkney version of the story. 

Washington Irving retold the story in the context of Old New Amsterdam. 

Please share your response to the story of The Grinding Mill with me. As the teller, I wonder how the story was heard… by You. Thanks!

Nieuw Amsterdam