Windmills are matters of public policy and entrepreneurial enterprise today from Texas to Alberta. Wind generators are coming to the plains in response to the national imperative for energy diversification. They constitute massive vertical intrusions on the level regional landscape. They are subjects of visible and vociferous debate. I do not propose to enter into that debate today (although I have my own thoughts).
Rather I write to recall that other sorts of windmills, once a pervasive element in the landscape and folklife of the plains, are vanishing. Farm and ranch folk as old as I or older recall the routine of windmilling-the endless round of checking and maintaining those wonderfully simple, and yet eternally cranky, machines. It was good for your vocabulary. Today the same round of pastures involves only the throwing of switches.
Most manufactured windmills have gone to junk piles. Collectors gather representative models into museum and private collections. We are not losing knowledge of this aspect of material culture; we are only losing its presence in the landscape. The Bible for windmill collectors, by the way, is A Field Guide to North American Windmills, by T. Lindsay Baker.
There is a family of farm and ranch windmills, however, that I fear is being lost not only from the landscape but also from memory. I’m talking about home-made windmills, contraptions constructed of junk and imagination and little or no money to catch wind and pump water for frugal citizens and their livestock. Once there were tens of thousands of them. Today I wonder if there remain dozens.
Back in the 1890s the home-made windmills of Nebraska were the object of fascinating studies by a man named Erwin Hinckley Barbour. Most of what we know about them, and the basic terms for describing them, we get from Barbour.
I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter a few homemade windmills, unused but still intact, in my travels over the plains. Near my native home in western Kansas I found one of the type that Barbour called a “go-devil.” This consists of a square box on the ground, constructed of planks. An axle spans the top of the box. Arms and fans, looking like those on the rear end of a paddleboat, are attached to the axle. It turns, because while the top blades are struck by the wind, the bottom ones are blocked by the box. A Model T differential attached to the end of the axle converts rotary motion into reciprocal and pumps the well. This is the only go-devil windmill I have seen in the field.
I also have found two old windmills of the type that Barbour called the merry-go-round. One of these is just south of Medina, North Dakota, and the other is right about on the Kansas-Oklahoma line, visible from Interstate 35.
Merry-go-round windmills turn around in a horizontal plane, like a merry-go-round. The ones that I have seen have cross-arms of wood, to which are attached halves of oil drums. They turn because the open side of the half-barrel catches wind, while the round side deflects it. The cross-arms turn a vertical shaft, and in each case, an automobile differential is used for the conversion of motion.
Old home-made, wooden windmills may go un-noticed. They are weathered, and most people would not recognize them for what they are. Those that remain ought to be noticed and documented, as a remembrance of the inventiveness and spirit of past generations of plains folk. If you know of any home-made windmills in the field, I’d appreciate hearing from you. You’ll find my contact information at Prairie Public, or visit Plains Folk at its Facebook fan page.