There it was, a wonderfully jerry-built contraption on an abandoned farmstead, a little bit of folk genius few people today recognize. Coming back from a grouse-hunting expedition, I spotted a homemade merry-go-round windmill.
Maybe you’ve seen one, but don’t know what to call it. I’m borrowing my terms from that pioneering scholar of windmills, Erwin Hinckley Barbour, who published The Homemade Windmills of Nebraska in 1899. A merry-go-round (I’m going to say MGR for short) windmill is one where the wind-catchers turn on arms in a horizontal plane around a vertical shaft.
Years ago I spotted a dandy MGR windmill along Interstate 35 near Arkansas City, Kansas. That one was built from junk in 1937. Key parts were 55-gallon oil drums cut in half lengthways, to serve as wind-catchers, and the differential and rear axle of a Model T Ford.
This other old MGR windmill is similar, and it’s located a few miles south of the Streeter, North Dakota, exit off Interstate 94. Six half-drums mounted on 2×2 arms sit atop a wooden tower and turn a vertical shaft. The shaft runs down to the differential salvaged from some vehicle–I couldn’t identify it. The wheels on the rear axle protrude out to each side, and the north wheel is connected to a pitman. That converts circular to reciprocal motion and powers the pump.
The corner legs of the tower are 4x4s, with bracing of 2-inch lumber, and with a ladder of 1-inch lumber going up the east side.
The neighbors said, if I wanted to find out about it, call Herb Reister in Medina. It turned out the place was in an estate to which his wife, Esther, was a party along with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Esther and Herb gave me some background over the telephone.
This MGR windmill was built by Gottlieb Graf, who with his wife Emma (Stolz) Graf lived and kept a small herd of grade cows on the place. Wife and husband, although born in America, were both of German-Russian stock, and I suspect not inclined to throw money around frivolously. Hence Gottlieb’s home-made windmill. Neither Esther nor Herb has an idea where he got the idea for the design, but MGRs were common in Nebraska a century ago, and this is the second one I’ve found using oil drums and an automotive differential.
Gottlieb Graf died in about 1970, and the windmill hasn’t been used since–although Herb says, “It would work to this day yet, if it was taken care of.” Esther says it dates from her girlhood on the farm, but in order to date it more precisely, I’m going to have to get someone to identify that differential for me.
The other type of home-made windmill I’ve found in the field is the “jumbo.” A jumbo windmill looks like a big box. Inside there is a horizontal shaft that connects at one end to a pitman and powers the pump. Blades like the paddles on a paddle-boat protrude above the walls of the box to catch the wind and turn the shaft.
A MGR windmill looks spectacular, whereas a jumbo is homely. But I’d be interested to hear if you’ve seen either type in your neighborhood. You’ll find my contact information at Prairie Public, or visit Plains Folk at its Facebook fan page. There at the Facebook page I’ve also linked to some photos I took of Gottlieb Graf’s windmill.