Heading south from Penn Yan, Route 14A unfolds gently through the quiet beauty of Yates County, rewarding travelers with a rejuvenation of the spirit. Regardless of the season, the hues of the landscape are vibrantly striking. Early summer offers acres lush with patchwork quilts of hay and wheat, and the deep winter provides blankets of quiet, undisturbed snow. Mennonite children pedal their bicycles, with the girls in dresses and bonnets and the boys in black hats and suspenders. Mennonite families travel in simple black carts powered by well-muscled horses. Behind impeccably manicured farmhouses, freshly washed laundry swings in the wind. In the midst of this tranquility, stands a place called the Windmill, an establishment that embodies the quiet goodness of life spiced with a bit of hustle and bustle.
The Windmill, celebrating its 16th year, offers individuals a glimpse into the past and optimism for the future. It represents hard work, productivity, wholesomeness, and especially fun. This unique destination, established in 1987, is frequently described as a farm and craft market; however, visitors quickly notice that the 31-acre site offers much more through its array of cultures, wares, cuisine, activities, and entertainment.
Enduring traditions coexist with contemporary ideas at the Windmill. Masterfully created Mennonite and Amish quilts, furniture, and baked goods are available for purchase alongside such items as pottery, jewelry, specialty soaps, and perennials. Horses harnessed to carts are nearly as common as the sports utility vehicle or family mini-van. The dialects and languages of far away places are heard in passing conversations. The soothing sounds of hollowed-wood wind chimes remind visitors to take a respite from the hectic pace of life, and appreciate the immense beauty found throughout the Finger Lakes. Shoppers may relax on one of the many benches beneath a towering pine or savor the bittersweet taste of a freshly-squeezed lemonade while strolling in the sun. But, most importantly, children are giggling, families are spending time together, and people are interacting in a friendly and gracious manner.
For the past 16 years, the Windmill has fostered economic and social growth in the region by attracting thousands of visitors yearly. Since the Windmill’s inception, Yates County has enjoyed a flourishing tourism industry with as many as 23 bed and breakfasts and 15 wineries offering visitors rural hospitality.
The creation of the Windmill and its ability to endure, prosper, and attract even overseas visitors are a testament to the vision of its insightful, tenacious founders. One of those with the entrepreneurial spirit was William Gunderman, who believed so strongly in the significance of the Windmill that he documented its origins through a series of written recollections. Through his enthusiastic words, the story of the Windmill unfolds, providing a glimpse of its founders’ determination.
“My father passed away last November, he was 88; he was a walking book of knowledge regarding the Windmill. He is deeply missed,” expressed Patricia Gunderman, William’s daughter.
William, his wife Ruth, and daughter Patricia, moved to Yates County in 1944 from the valleys of Elmira. For 38 years William was employed at New York State Electric and Gas and for many years operated a poultry farm. Upon his retirement, he and his family traveled extensively to craft shows to sell the baskets Ruth and Patricia crafted, as well as the woodwork and wind chimes that William had fashioned.
William Gunderman believed that Yates County needed a permanent venue for its hardworking local artisans, farmers, and businesspeople to congregate and sell their goods and services. As a result of his own experiences derived from traveling to shows and constantly packing and unpacking his “productions,” (a term William coined), he was keenly aware of the advantages that could be gained from a permanent selling location.
William demonstrated an intuitive nature regarding people and their needs. He understood the economic necessity for a local marketplace, but, in addition, he recognized the importance of the camaraderie that a centralized selling place would inevitably generate. Consequently, he and his family spearheaded an initiative to develop a permanent market for vendors. A meeting was held at which eighty interested people were in attendance, and “a steering committee was formed and plans were formulated for the organization to continue,” wrote William.
The newly formed committee stumbled across some financial barriers. William and his colleagues had hoped that they would be able to secure a loan from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, the potential grant was not to be, but as William described, the entrepreneurial group was “undaunted” and moved forward with their plans. Eventually the committee became incorporated under the New York State Agricultural and Market Law and was known as the Yates County Country Cooperative Incorporated.
“Under this charter the co-op was able to issue and sell 500 shares of preferred stock at $100 per share and 500 shares of common stock at $25 per share,” described William. Most shares were purchased by individuals who wanted to participate as vendors and maintain a strong connection to their investment.
In 1986, Patricia Gunderman was elected the cooperative’s president, all the shares were sold, and the search began for a market location.
“A committee looked at many sites within the county and settled on a 26- acre lot on Route 14A about midway between Penn Yan and Dundee,” wrote William. “The land chosen, although in the area desired, left a lot to be desired from a practical standpoint, a shallow topsoil over a near surface shalerock (sic) subsoil made drainage a major problem and as one local farmer summed it up ‘You couldn’t raise hell on that piece of property even if you had a barrel of hard cider.’ ”
The local Mennonite community “pledged the support of their Mennonite craftsmen in furnishing carpenters and labor to erect the first building in the form of a barn-raising,” recollected William. “This faith by the Mennonites was good news to the organizers of the co-op. because they hoped the market would act as a catalyst to bring the English and the Mennonites closer together because the Amish and the Mennonites are a generous people who contribute much to the communities in which they live.”
Pat Scott, current president of the Windmill Cooperative, recalled that the barn-raising, which occurred on April 25, 1987, was remarkable to watch; reporters from surrounding counties arrived to witness and photograph the Mennonite fathers and sons at work. Remarkably, complete strangers who happened down Route 14A that day were so in awe of the notable occasion that several stopped and asked how they could be of assistance.
“Approximately 30 Mennonites were joined by 20 members of the co-op and the barn raising began under the supervision of Ivan Hoover. Very little voice commands were heard because each one of the group seemed to know exactly what was expected of him and automatically went about doing it,” scribed William. “…The building was taking shape right before your very eyes.”
The barn-raising was accompanied by a “smorgasbord” of everything from chili to pickles to pies, with many of the baked goods coming fresh from the oven of Barbara Hoover and other Mennonite kitchens in the community.
“A truly wonderful day with so much community spirit present you just knew that with such a great beginning the market was sure to prosper and be successful,” wrote William.
By this time, the future marketplace came to be known as the Windmill; Debbie Clancy, who was assisting with promotional work, suggested the name. In addition, the original ticket booth from the much-missed Roseland Amusement Park was donated and slated to be used as the Windmill’s information booth.
June 27, 1987, was an historic date for the Windmill. It opened for business with 90 vendors eagerly selling their goods and welcoming visitors to experience what they had worked so arduously to achieve.
“The enthusiasm of these visitors was amazing and heartening to those who had struggled so hard to make it all come together—and the positive statements of approval of those first timers and their promises of returning, along with the sunshine and good camaraderie of the day made that opening day a dream come true,” wrote William. Patricia Gunderman, president of the co-op said, “Tears were welling up in my eyes and there were no words to express the way we felt.”
On August 6, 1988, another historic day for those involved with the Windmill occurred. A celebratory ceremony took place with State Senator Randy Kuhl, State Assemblyman Donald Davidson, and local poet, Ralph Seager in attendance. William recollected that Assemblyman Davidson stated, “You have been successful, not because government helped you, but you have been successful because you are helping yourselves.”
Over the past sixteen years, the solid foundation that was established by the Gunderman family and those from the Mennonite community has expanded substantially.
Today, as a visitor, to the market, you can browse through the merchandise of over 250 vendors, meander through three spacious buildings, (one of which carries the Gunderman name), a street of shops, and an open- air market. You may even access an onsite full-service bank and a chiropractic office. You can purchase anything from fresh cuts of meat to antique glassware. You can watch skilled quilt makers knowledgeably work their fingers through brightly hued quilting squares, take your children mining for gem stones at a working sluice, or enjoy a horse and buggy ride through the magnificent Finger Lakes scenery. And, don’t be surprised if a rooster or cat vies for your attention—as the folks at the Windmill have been known to adopt a few mascots.
“People have such a good time here, there is so much to do and see, there’s no pressure…it’s at your pace. You always see people walking around having a great time,” said Bill Sloan, current Windmill manager. “It’s a wholesome and family-oriented place, people come back again and again. It’s enjoyable to work here, and it’s wonderful to explore here. It gets in your blood, everyone is great.” Sloan emphasized that there is absolutely no charge for admission or parking.
“Hundreds have given their tal-ents unselfishly and the credit for success belongs to all of them,” wrote William.
by Tara Morgan
Tara Morgan lives in Victor with her husband and daughter.