The Old-Fashioned Windmill

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Photo by Platte River Photography/Rick Rasmussen
What was once a hardworking windmill now serves only to adorn the Nebraska prairie.

Look at any photograph of farms and ranches in the 1800s, and you’ll likely see a working windmill in the landscape. The windmill was one of the inventions that made settlement of the Great Plains possible. (Others included sod houses, barbed wire, and perhaps even the Colt revolver.) Windmills were vital to American settlers who traveled from the lush, fertile East to homestead a patch of land in the much drier West, breathing life into an otherwise barren landscape. The image of the windmill — spoked sails spinning atop a tall, wooden tower and one of the only vertical features on the sprawling prairie landscape — would be identified with the American farm for the next 150 years.

The 100th meridian runs straight through farmlands of the Great Plains, marking the divide between the drier western climate, and the moist, eastern climate. Agriculture west of this meridian relied on irrigation. Without the water-pumping windmill, would-be farmers could have only settled along rivers and in rare places where there may be a spring. Though windmills had been used for centuries to grind grain, Americans adapted the grist mill technology into a “self-governing” water-pumping windmill that automatically turned to face the changing wind direction. Farmers’ reliance on windmills for crop irrigation and to maintain livestock created a “windmill belt” across the farm and ranchland of the Plains, an area perfect for windmills — dry regions to the west, abundant underground water, and steady winds. When the Homestead Law of 1862 created the need for the homesteaders to divide their property, the settlers each dug their own well — powered by windmills — in their fields.

The Rise & Fall of the Windmill

The first water-pumping windmill that was successful was the wooden-wheeled Eclipse, but the upkeep on this open-geared model was extremely labor intensive, as someone had to climb it once a week to grease the gears. Historians say male settlers would court and marry a woman based on her ability to climb a windmill tower and keep it greased. The big breakthrough in windmill technology was the oil bath, or self-lubricating design, which meant you didn’t have to climb your windmill and grease it every week. Some resourceful farmers even built their own windmills, most with local lumber, but some with discarded farm materials such as old buggies or wagons. While windmills were, for most, affordable, the cost of freight to rural areas was prohibitive, and more than one windmill was required to irrigate several larger fields.

As electricity was introduced across the Plains, the majestic working windmills that helped settle the West began to slowly vanish. The rapid decline of windmills began after World War I, when farm prices crashed, followed by the Depression. The New Deal brought rural electrification in 1935 to remote farms and ranches, which meant the end for the generating windmills. Most windmill manufacturers closed shop by the late 1930s, and with the rationing of zinc for steel during World War II, many remaining manufacturers converted their factories into munition plants. During the windmill boom from 1854 to 1920, more than 700 companies manufactured windmills. Over time, most went out of business, and only a few remain today. What was left of the original water-pumping windmills across western land either rotted or were destroyed by fire, as the tall structures acted like lightning rods on the open prairies.

Preserving Heritage

Nostalgia, however, is a strong emotion, and nostalgia for the windmill is what drove the late Billie Wolfe, professor of home economics who taught housing design for Texas Tech in the mid-1960s, to begin her quest to preserve the Plain’s historic windmills. In the early 1990s, Wolfe made arrangements to purchase one of the finest assemblages of early windmills in the country — from Mitchell, Nebraska, resident Don Hundley, who owned the Windmill Hill Museum at the time. Museum groups, including the Smithsonian, along with several private collectors had attempted to purchase the rarest of his pieces, but Hundley refused to break up the collection. Hundley’s entire collection is now housed at the American Windmill Museum in Lubbock, Texas, home to some of the rarest windmills in the country.

Today there is a burgeoning market for antique windmills, including a renewed interest in water-pumping windmills, and the demand for experts in antique windmill restoration and repair is growing. One newer windmill repair startup is Griffith Windmill Restoration in Lincoln, Nebraska. Turning his lifelong passion for windmills into a budding business, owner Dan Griffith says that most of the demand for windmill restoration is for decorative purposes, but there’s a growing interest in restoring water-pumping windmills for working farms and ranches. “On one job, as we were hooking the assembly up to the well,” Griffith says, “cows started heading in from the field. We knew we had to get that windmill up and running. It was pretty cool.”

Nostalgia is also driving the increased demand for hobby farms or small acreages by a younger generation, as they join the trend to restore properties into a replica of the past, windmills included. Communities across the Plains are also restoring a part of their history by preserving their region’s windmills, including one antique collection restored to working order at Windmill State Recreation Area near Gibbon, Nebraska. Other windmill museums dot the Plains, including Mid-America Windmill Museum in Kendallville, Indiana, Shattuck Windmill Museum in Shattuck, Oklahoma, and Brown County Agricultural Museum in Hiawatha, Kansas. Kregel Windmill Factory Museum in Nebraska City, Nebraska, is the only preserved, original historic windmill factory that remains in the country. Here, tools remain on the table, work jackets on a hook, even metal shavings remain under a grinder. It’s a time capsule of windmill engineering.

Although only fossils remain of the original American farmers’ hardworking windmills, the work of passionate individuals and communities determined to maintain a link to their past allow future generations to learn about the importance of windmills to their history, and perhaps plant a seed of interest to keep the icon of the American farmer spinning into the future.