Dark clouds of smoke, blaring sirens, a humongous fire is what every entrepreneur wants to avoid. Therefore, modern firms protect themselves against fire with lightning conductors, sprinkler installations, fire escapes and alarm systems. In the Zaan Region with its many thatched windmills and wooden houses, a blaze was disastrous not only for the windmill owner and his workers but also for its surrounding area. Because of its location in the open field, and its high stature, a windmill formed an easy prey for a lightning strike. The increasing temperatures caused by the rubbing parts its mechanics constituted a serious fire hazard as well. The materials that composed the windmill like wood and reed were highly flammable. In merely a few minutes an entire windmill could be ablaze. Throughout the ages, about 250 windmills in the Zaan region burned down just like that. If a windmill caught fire, it was very important to make sure that the fire would not spread to other windmills and nearby wooden buildings. Especially with fierce winds that happened often. Burning pieces of reed and flying sparks constituted a significant risk. To prevent the fire from spreading wild, the adjacent windmills were turned on at full power to help ward off the sparks, the so-called “spark grinding”.
The Zaan fire brigades relished a special place in the community. In case of a fire, their members would form a chain and would pass down leather buckets from the water source to the place of the fire. Later, by the nineteenth century, three fire hoses were located in the Zaan region. About eighty strong men were needed to operate one fire hose. To keep up the moral, the firemen used to have quite a number of drinks, arranged by the head commander, while putting out the flames. Sometimes, one could measure the size of a fire by the number of consumed drinks. Moreover, the fire brigades were rewarded for their services with the so-called extinguish bonuses. These were used to pay for the festive evenings that the brigades organized on a regular basis. During these fire fests, the firemen enjoyed a meal consisting of beef and peas which they flushed down with large quantities of beer and sometimes even with red wine. It’s not hard to imagine that a fire fest could be heard from far away by the loud singing of the firemen. During these festivities, they would tell the stories of the fires which they had recently put out.
In 1663 eight windmill owners signed the first notarial fire insurance contract. They were obliged, all committed to strict fire prevention conditions, to pay 250 gilders each in case of a fire. This way, each windmill owner was ensured to have a 1750 gilders damage cover in case his windmill would burn down. This was not enough yet to cover the entire loss. However, throughout time, when the number of participants grew, the sum of money to be paid out grew evenly. One of the large contracts, signed by oil production windmills in 1727, evolved into an employers’ organization ‘avant-la-lettre’. The 143 oil mill owners were committed to defend mutual interests like decreasing taxes ‘wind-taxes’ and protection against foreign competition. When in 1745 in the nearby village of Wormer a paint mill burned down, the indemnity procedures appeared to be effective and fast. Within a few days, the damage was ascertained, the restitution money paid out and within three months only a brand-new windmill was upright. These mutual fire insurance contracts would be replaced by modern insurance companies by the nineteenth century.
Just as in their battle against the waters, the Dutch showed their courage, tenacity and ingenuity in their fight against fires.