Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Bit About Windmills

Life in the Nebraska Sandhills... History and Old Stuff... Another Trip Down Memory Lane...

A windmill on the Old Butler Road, near Hwy. 68

Here's something that's fairly uncommon in Kentucky -- a windmill. And this one is a real American classic -- an Aermotor. The Hoovers, a father-and-sons Mennonite farm along Highway 68 east of Hopkinsville, own this windmill and several others. I enjoy seeing them.

Most folks in rural Kentucky pulled their water out of a well or a stream with a bucket until electricity was brought into the countryside by TVA in the 1950's. Water wasn't really a problem for the settlers of Kentucky. Numerous small and large streams flow across the surface of the land, springs were common, and shallow wells could be dug to access underground rivulets of water.

As settlement progressed into the American West, water was not as readily available as it had been in the East. The reinvention of windmills as water pumpers in the mid-1800's helped to make the settlement of the dry Great Plains possible. Like the traditional Dutch windmills, the first American windmills were wooden. The Aermotor, brought to market in the late 1880's, was one of the first all-steel windmills. With a revolutionary set of gears and a carefully engineered ability to respond to a slight breath of air, the Aermotor was a reliable, thus popular, machine and it is still manufactured today.

I've collected several hundred or more internet images of old photos and postcards of Nebraska that date back to the late 1800's. It is interesting to see how many windmills were in people's backyards, right in town, even into the 1930's and 1940's. The image at right is a windmill in the background of a 1913 postcard of the Congregational Church in Plainview, Nebraska.

Every ranch child of the Nebraska Sandhills has a windmill's song embedded in his memory. It's a repetitive melody with a tempo set by the wind, a creak and a groan as the mill turns and the sucker rod moves, and an alternating gush and trickle as the water pours out. Usually the water is pumped into a tank which overflows into a windmill pond. The tank and pond support a wetlands flora and fauna greatly different from the surrounding landscape. Waterbirds chirp around the edges of the pond; frogs abound. A child can spend an entertaining afternoon making an aquarium in a quart jar with snails and moss from the windmill tank or catching pollywogs in the windmill pond.

As electric pumps took the place of windmills in the farmlands of Iowa and Illinois, windmills fell into disuse. My father had a small business in rebuilt windmill motors from Iowa when I was a kid. He became acquainted with a retired plumber from central Iowa. This fellow drove about the Iowa farmlands, purchasing windmills to restore. He prefered Aermotors, but also occasionally bought Dempsters. When he had 10 or 15 of them rebuilt, my dad would take the pickup and trailer to Iowa and get them. I think Daddy advertised them in the local paper at times, but mostly, the neighbors all knew that if they had windmill trouble, Charlie Hill probably had a good rebuilt motor on hand that he would sell them at a reasonable price.

The windmill in the photo is owned by a Mennonite family, and I think they use it to pump water in the summer for their fields of vegetables. This family grows a lot of garden crops for a produce stand and for a local produce auction. It's too bad they don't have a tank, because I know their kids would enjoy it!


Neb Ex-Pat said...

I can again hear that Windmill song with a renewed clarity after reading your post. It is music that may move from the memory to the very soul of all Sandhillers...Neb ex-pat

Genevieve said...

Many of us Sandhillers grew up with a windmill right in the yard. The windmill played the background music to our entire childhoods. When you hear the sound again, you will be surprised at the memories and emotions it stirs

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.