Not Rocket Science
Windmills Then & Now
©2007 Bryce Black
The year is 2007. You are driving along a rural highway and pass a dilapidated looking farmstead. Next to the weathered barn is an old water-pumping windmill, groaning as its bullet-ridden wheel wobbles in the wind.
Quite likely, you roll past and don’t even notice the old mill is there. If it does register briefly on your radar screen, perhaps you think it’s quaint and picturesque. On the other hand, maybe to you, it’s an eyesore. But do you ever wonder how that old windmill got there, what it meant to the people who bought it and put it up, and whether this windmill, or any windmill, has a future? Maybe you even wonder if there could be a windmill in your future…
People have been harnessing the wind to do useful work for thousands of years. Sailboats are an obvious example. Windmills with sail-cloth blades were used by the ancient Romans and Persians.
Nearly everyone has seen pictures of the large and iconic windmills developed by the Dutch and other European countries to grind grain and pump water. Most of these “Dutch-style” windmills were quite large, some as big as a good-sized house. Often it was someone’s full time job to tend the mill, turn it to face the wind, furl and unfurl the sails, etc. When European settlers came to this country, hundreds of these “Dutch-style” mills were built along the eastern seaboard.
But as our fledgling nation expanded westward, especially as settlers moved into the Great Plains and even more arid territory, the age-old dream of harnessing the wind began to take on a new form. Ingenious inventors and entrepeneurs began designing, mass producing, and marketing windmills that were lighter, more affordable, and far easier to erect and use than the cumbersome European mills.
Connecticut inventor Daniel O. Halladay is generally credited with patenting the first commercially successful self-governing American windmill, in 1854. Halladay organized a company to manufacture his mill, the Halladay Standard, which in 1863 was sold to the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. of Batavia, Illinois.
The next few decades brought a virtual explosion of activity in the new windmill industry. Hundreds of firms went into the business of manufacturing windmills, ranging from mom-and-pop foundry operations, to major players like Aermotor Co. of Chicago; Flint and Walling of Kendallville, IN; Challenge Windmill Co. of Batavia, IL.; Baker Manufacturing of Evansville, WI; Fairbanks Morse of Beloit, WI; and many others.
Many people may not realize the great extent to which the rapid westward expansion of American settlement and agriculture depended on the availability of affordable, reliable wind power for pumping water. Windmills also played an essential role in building the U.S. railroad infrastructure in the arid western states, since steam-powered locomotives required a continual supply of water.
During its seven or eight decade heyday, the U.S. windmill industry produced a fascinating profusion of different windmill designs and products. Most of the earliest mills had wooden wheels. Some, like the Monitor Vaneless, were sectional wheel mills, whose wheels might look like a disk, a cone, or a cylinder, depending on the wind velocity. Solid wood wheel mills such as the Fairbanks Morse Eclipse used a different speed governing technology, and their wheels remained doggedly disk-shaped.
The Aermotor Co. of Chicago was one of the pioneering companies to introduce a wheel made of curved sheet metal blades, in the 1880s. Most manufacturers eventually followed suit and brought out steel-wheeled mills.
Another significant milestone was the development of enclosed oil bath gearboxes in the 1910s and 20s. The open geared mills sold up ‘til that time had required frequent climbing for lubrication (monthly or even weekly). The oil bath mills reduced the often dreaded tower climbing chore to a yearly event.
If it ain’t broke…
By the 1920s and 30s, it’s probable that most farms in the Midwest, and many Western ranches, used a windmill to pump their water. Here in the bluff and coulee country along the Mississippi River, the hilly terrain that made crop farming a challenge had a silver lining. Smart farmers located their windmill, well and water-storing cistern uphill from the house and barn, then buried water pipe (sometimes hundreds of feet of it) from the cistern to the house and barn. The resulting system provided year-round running water for many rural households long before the advent of electric pumps and pressure tanks.
With the coming of rural electrification in the 40s and 50s, most rural residents in our part of the country lost interest in using and maintaining their windmills. Many cisterns were filled in, and a lamentable number of windmills were sold for scrap. However, a handful of die-hard “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” types continued to use the old windmill systems for years—some to this day. Add in a small but growing cadre of folks who want to live the energy-independent lifestyle, and a surprising number of people to whom windmills are a coveted accoutrement of country living ambiance… and this is where I come into the story.
Not rocket science
I am a member of that dying breed—the windmill man. I make my living resurrecting old windmills from the dead, often attempting to undo 70 or 80 years of attrition, neglect, and abuse.
My business is called “LoTec Windmill Service,” a name I inherited from my windmill guru, friend, and one-time partner, Mark “Spark” Burmaster. Back in 1981 I served an informal but intensive apprenticeship with Spark, a dropped-out electrical engineer, anti-nuke activist, inventor and all-round mechanical genius. Under his able tutelage, I learned a thing or two about water pumping windmills. And, 26 years later, I’m still learning.
I sell a few windmills every year—mostly vintage Aermotor windmills that I’ve gone through and reconditioned all the critical wearing parts. Occasionally I sell someone a brand new mill. (Yes, windmills are still being manufactured!) A majority of the work I do is repair work on windmills that my customers already own. Frequently I am called on to take down a windmill someone has purchased, haul it to its new home, repair/rebuild it, and reinstall it on new footings.
I generally do all this without the benefit of a crane or boom truck. Instead, I rely on home-made gin poles, winches, and a big toolbox full of Vise-Grips®. This ain’t rocket science—anyone who’s reasonably mechanically inclined could probably put up a windmill. But there are a few tricks of the trade a guy learns the hard way.
How it works
So, how does a water-pumping windmill work?
The individual blades in a windmill’s wheel are arranged at a common angle, so that the wind flowing over them causes the wheel to rotate. Thus the wind’s horizontal thrust is converted into a rotary motion. By means of a crank or pitman mechanism, the rotation is converted into up-and-down reciprocal motion.
This reciprocal motion is transferred from the mill mechanism at the top of the tower, often by a wooden pole that connects to a ground level hand pump. The plunger of this pump is connected, by a long sucker rod inside the well drop pipe, to a cylinder submerged deep in the well. The repeated up-stroke of a piston inside the cylinder, coupled with the alternating opening and closing of two check valves, lifts the water to the pump spout above ground. From there the water might flow into a stock tank or some kind of cistern or reservoir. Since the wind doesn’t blow every day, it’s a good idea to store several days’ water supply while it is blowing.
There’s a bit more to it, of course. The windmill head must be free to swivel 360 degrees to face the wind. The moving parts of the mill need bearings and a lubrication system to keep ‘em moving. The mill has an automatic governing system to limit its RPMs in high winds, and a braking/furling system to turn the wheel out of the wind and stop its rotation in storms or when the water tank is full. All of the tower components should be securely bolted in place and not bent or broken, or the tower can get wiggly and eventually succumb to the elements.
Ideally, my goal as a windmill man is to make sure all of these necessary and interrelated systems are functional, to ensure the mill’s longevity and safety. I find that after 70 or 80 years on the tower, a lot of mills are due for a healthy dose of TLC. In the best case scenario, a brake adjustment and oil change may be all that’s needed. In other cases, the best thing to do is take the mill down and give it a complete overhaul.
As I stated, I am mostly rebuilding vintage Aermotor windmills that were manufactured in the 1920s and 30s. But, water-pumping windmills are still being manufactured today. In addition to renewable energy enthusiasts and a growing nostalgia/ ornamental market, there is a steady demand for windmills in the western ranch country, where many ranches cover vast areas and have multiple wells miles from any power line.
The Aermotor Co. dominated the windmill market back in the day, and they are still in business, making the Aermotor Model 802 in their plant in San Angelo, TX. All its parts are interchangable with the vintage Model 702 made from the 1930s through 50s. There are also a number of manufacturers making mills that are identical copies of the Aermotor 702 (the patents expired some time ago). I know of such operations located in Argentina, Mexico, China, and North and South Dakota.
The Dempster Co. in Beatrice Nebraska is also still making new windmills. The Southern Cross mill, made in South Africa, is also currently being imported into the U.S.
Although I don’t have much in the way of competition locally, I’m certainly not the only windmill man on earth; there are a number of other windmill repair services around the U.S.
Je ne sais quoi
Unfortunately, I do not possess a reliable crystal ball. But I don’t think the water pumping windmill is in immediate danger of extinction. I’ve experienced a steady demand for my services as a windmill man. I expect the national and international markets for windmills to grow, as development occurs in China and other remote areas of the third world, and as rural residents in this country become more concerned about peak oil issues and rising energy costs.
And, as I stated earlier, there is the nostalgia factor. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the old machines I work on. Somehow, windmills embody American history and spirit in a unique way. There is something alive about them, like huge wind-seeking flowers. They are a primal archetype that resides deep in our souls.
It would be a damn shame if the historic physical manifestation of that archetype were to vanish from our countryside. And they ain’t gonna, anytime soon. Not if I have anything to say about it.
Tit for Tat
©2007 Bryce Black
The year is 1927. It’s a beautiful June morning on a small dairy farm in Pierce County, Wisconsin. Morning chores are finished and breakfast eaten. You are sitting on the front porch lacing up your boots, getting ready to go help Dad hitch up the team to mow some hay. Your eyes are drawn to the shiny silver blades of the brand new Aermotor windmill next to the barn. The wheel turns lazily in the warm breeze, effortlessly filling the cattle tank and cistern with clear, cold water.
“Boy, am I glad Dad finally saved up enough to buy the windmill,” you tell your brother Bill. He nods. Both of you remember all those years when you spent a couple of hours every day pumping water by hand from a depth of nearly three hundred feet.
Suddenly, the morning quiet is shattered as a rumbling cloud of dust lurches into the farmyard and squeals to a halt. The dust settles, revealing a new Model T Ford. A young man wearing dapper city attire emerges from the driver’s door.
“It’s Cousin Tom!” whoops Bill, and all the kids run to meet him.
“So, what’s new down on the farm?” asks Cousin Tom, handing out chewing gum to everyone. Then he sees it. “Oh ho! A windmill, huh? Ya know what them things are good for?”
He reaches behind the seat of the Model T and brings out a .22. Aims it at the windmill. Crack! Ping! On the windmill’s sheet metal tail vane, a neat bullet hole appears in the middle of the concentric “C” and “O” of “The Aermotor Co.”
“Bullseye,” crows Tom, as you and your siblings stare in horror.
“Hey!” A shout from the barn. Dad’s head pops out of the door. He looks at Tom holding the still-smoking .22, up to the windmill, back to Tom. Strides out of the barn and over to the proud marksman.
“That was a damn good shot—mind if I try?” says Dad. Takes the gun and sights at the windmill. Suddenly he swivels and Bam! the .22 spits lead. Right through the windshield of the Model T. He hands the gun to the stunned cousin.
“Now you get off this farm and I don’t ever want to see your sorry face again.”
The gentleman who told me this story swore this really happened in his family. And if it didn’t—well, it should have.