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Sylvester Manor windmill tilts toward the future to harness the wind for energy

The 19th-century windmill at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm is one of the Island’s most readily identifiable links to its agricultural past. This year, a group of students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts have focused their research on designing a modern wind energy system to augment the windmill’s future energy production potential.

The windmill, built in 1810 as a gristmill to grind grain into flour, had ceased operating in the mid-1900s, and its driveshaft had rotted. With its interior works otherwise in good condition, it is now being restored to once again grind grain grown on and off the farm.

It was built in Southold by Nathaniel Dominy and moved to Shelter Island by barge in 1840, according to the Manor’s records. Around 1879, the mill ceased full-time operations, at which time it was purchased by Lilian Horsford, a descendant of the original Sylvester family. It was her goal to save this part of Long Island history for future generations.

In 1926 Miss Cornelia Horsford, Lilian’s sister, moved the windmill from the center of Shelter Island, near the library and school, to its present location at Sylvester Manor.

An interior of the early 19th-century windmill. (Credit: Reporter file photo)

The team of five WPI students made the system part of their “Major Qualifying Project,” a team-based, professional level design experience that is the culmination of their project-based undergraduate education.

Carly Campbell, Anna Carriero, Alaa Hassan, Brandon Weyant and Georgianna Wood, members of the Class of 2020, began the project on their campus, but had to complete it while working off campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wind energy system design will inform Sylvester Manor Farm’s administrators about what is needed for the windmill to create energy that could be stored in a battery and used to power something on-site, like the farm’s greenhouse.

Sara Gordon, who works on planning and sustainability at the Manor, said the project was important on a number of levels. “The students have advanced their study and discipline,” she said, “and we received information we can take to funders, regulatory partners and manufacturers and say…this is what we need.”

The team fortunately was able to visit the Island before the COVID shutdown. “All of us made the trip to Shelter Island at least once and some of us were lucky enough to visit twice,” said Carly Campbell. “The two ferry rides to the Island were quite the adventure, especially for those of us who got sea sick! Being able to visit and walk through the windmill really helped us visualize and understand its inner mechanisms and mechanical system and allowed us to use this knowledge when designing an electro-mechanical system.”

Ms. Campbell coordinated communications between the team, their advisors, Sylvester Manor and the windmill’s master carpenter, Jim Kricker. “We hope to make one more trip once it is safe to do so,” she said, “to deliver the model to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.”

The WPI team designed a scale model, 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide, with 10-inch blades, that includes all the main functional elements of a full-scale system. Eventually, educators can use the model in classrooms to help students learn how wind energy can charge a battery or power a light.

The team did research and analysis: how much wind blows in this part of Long Island; how to introduce a modern electrical system into the 210-year-old windmill; how much energy the mill could produce; and what would be the best battery for storage. In order to build the model, they used 3D printing, laser cutting and CAD software to create precision drawings.

One of the challenges was to find the balance between keeping it historically accurate and turning it into a functioning source of energy. “There are a lot of old windmills not being used,” said student Georgianna Wood, “and this opens a lot of doors for them — other windmills could do this.”

The project fits closely with the mission of the Manor. It’s focused on teaching apprentice farmers and educating visitors about the history of food, labor and American culture.

Another priority is modeling innovative practices and technologies to promote an understanding of sustainable sources of energy. This project will provide valuable knowledge to support the Manor team’s discussions with potential funders and partners, Ms. Gordon said, and added, “All of this is absolute gold for us.”