The Windmills That Won The West
THEY WERE AS IMPORTANT AS RAILROADS OR HORSES-AS A NEW MUSEUM RECOGNIZES
DURING THE 1960s PROFESSOR BILLIE Wolfe at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, taught a course called “Housing Design for Family Living.” She took photographs of ranches and farms for use in her class, and she noticed that many of them in- eluded derelict or unused windmills. Seeing those pictures, she realized that the machines were disappearing from the Western landscape.
The windmill, even more than the railroad, was crucial to settling the West. Windmills permitted ranchers and farmers to live and work on land where there was no reliable natural water supply, which was most of the frontier. And when the tracks started to reach toward the Pacific, windmills supplied the water for the locomotives and those who served them.
Between 1854—when a New England machinist named Daniel Halladay obtained the first American patent for a selfregulating windmill—and 1920, more than 700 U.S. companies manufactured an amazing variety of them. A self-regulating windmill was one that would automatically fold its blades in high winds to avoid damage to them. Many had company logos painted on their vanes, including Aermotor (the “Czar of All the Windmill Business…), Dempster, Eclipse, Butler, Elgin, Samson, Southern Cross, Fairbanks-Morse, Flint & Walling, and Currie (the “poor man’s windmill…).
The Maud S. Windmill & Pump Company named its machine after a winning racehorse owned by William H. Vanderbilt. Another model, the so-called Women’s Windmill, tilted midway up the tower so its motor could be greased from the ground. This was meant to eliminate the need to climb the tower, a dangerous weekly job even in good weather and one made more unpleasant by the fact that wasps found windmill platforms perfect for their nests. Sears, Roebuck claimed to offer the most complete line of mills and showcased them in a 118-page supplement to its famous catalogue. Not only could customers choose from a wide variety of motors and towers, but Sears also supplied instructions for choosing the best location for the mill and providing proper maintenance.
Cowboys found they could increase their income by learning to dig wells and erect, maintain, and repair the windmills that pulled water out of them. They traveled across the Plains under the direction of “windmill bosses,” carrying their tools and food in covered wagons and sleeping under the stars. Owners of big ranches often employed crews of windmillers to make continuous rounds of their spreads. The mills generally had to be greased once a week, at least until 1915, when a motor with a sealed, oil-filled gearbox was developed that could run for a year before needing service.
When the 1930s brought electricity to rural America, windmills quickly gave way to electric pumps, and windmill companies closed their doors. Today only a handful of manufacturers survive in the United States. Working windmills are rare, and many stand abandoned, their broken blades and bulletriddled tails making eerie silhouettes against the sky.
In the 1960s Billie Wolfe began traveling across the West, searching for windmills she might preserve. She bought several and had them shipped to Lubbock. In 1992 she learned that Don Hundley, the owner of a windmill museum in Nebraska, wanted to sell his collection, one of the finest assemblages of early windmills in the country, along with hand pumps, salesmen’s models, and the weights that some windmills used to keep their blades faced into the wind or to regulate the self-adjusting mechanism. Mill weights were often cast in the shape of animals, and today they’re avidly sought by collectors. A rooster made by the Elgin Windmill Company recently sold for $5,800.
IN 1993 WOLFE GOT TOGETHER with Coy Harris, a Lubbock native and chief executive of the Wind Engineering Corporation, to establish the National Windmill Project, a nonprofit corporation, and it acquired Hundley’s collection. Hundley’s 48 windmills, 171 weights, 56 pumps, and many boxes of photographs and literature were shipped to Lubbock and put into storage while Harris went to work raising money for a new windmill museum.
Billie Wolfe suffered a stroke in 1996 and died the following year, but her decades of work locating windmills and persuading their owners to let them be saved were rewarded in the summer of 1997 when the city of Lubbock made available 28 acres for a museum.
The museum, now called the American Wind Power Center, opened on June 20, 1998. Its exhibit hall contains more than 75 mills, some with wheels 25 feet across. The oldest dates from 1868, and the majority have been painstakingly restored, down to their original colors. There are displays illustrating the history, technology, and economic importance of windmills, and one section of the museum documents the accomplishments of Wolfe herself. Another has a restored windmiller’s wagon stocked with the tools of that nomadic trade.
Coy Harris, the museum’s executive director, and Rick Nidey, its master windmiller, oversee restorations and maintenance and go on field trips searching for mills to add to the collection as well as for badly needed spare parts. The museum’s Tom and Evelyn Linebery Windmill Park gives visitors an opportunity to see more than 35 working windmills. One of the most impressive, a rare twin-wheel model manufactured in Hutchinson, Kansas, in the early 1900s, has two 12-foot wheels on a single tower.
Windmills have been getting new attention lately as an alternative energy source, and nostalgia isn’t always a part of it. One Texas rancher says, “It’s not profitable to try to string miles of wire across pastureland to run a pump to fill the stock tanks in remote pastures. The voltage decreases with such long lines, and storms can tear down even the best-strung wires.”
O’Brock Windmills, in North Benton, Ohio, sells windmills, towers, pumps, parts, and well supplies. One of its largest mills has a 25-foot-diameter wheel on a 55-foot-high tower. Windmill farms are being built to generate electricity, their “wind turbines” powered by huge polymer blades, with slender towers that can rise more than 250 feet. In Denmark, 10 percent of the electricity is now produced by wind turbines.
The concept is hardly new. One of the machines displayed at the American Wind Power Center is a 1920s model that was developed specifically to generate electricity. A letter from the man who donated it, also on display, explains that it used to provide electricity for his family’s farmhouse, including the radio. One fall he and his brother, fanatical baseball fans, were dismayed to discover that the wind wasn’t blowing on the day of the final game of the World Series. They agreed that one of them would climb up and spin the blades each inning while the other listened to the game in the house. Then they’d change places. The writer complained that he was stuck up on the windmill in the last inning, when a home run decided the game.