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Preserving Windmills
By Leif Enger
March 8 1999
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It's been said the American West would still be wild were it not for the windmill - the traditional water-pumping machine that allowed homes and farms to thrive in the prairie states. Though long ago relegated to lawn-ornament status, the market for old windmills is gaining strength, with many being restored to their original use.

THE BONES OF 50 WINDMILLS rest on Doyle Herrig's property south of the Twin Cities. They're laid out in two orange-tinged windrows of corroded parts, each row waist high, a few steps wide, maybe 50-yards long. Up close, some pieces reveal their identities. Jumbled concave blades; gearboxes frozen in rust; spoked wheels like huge ossified spiders.
Herrig: This one here we got out of Iowa. It had been there many years, but had been hidden by trees. Then one day the sun was out, I was driving by, and I saw it. It was a spring day, it was cold - probably early May, in the fifties - and as I remember, the wind was blowing about 15. I've thought about that a lot when I tear an old windmill down; what kind of a day was it when they put it up? Maybe it was 1890, maybe 1902. You wonder. Was it 20 below, middle of winter? A hundred above? Was the wind blowing, or not?
Herrig has windmills from all over - California, Oklahoma, Illinois. Someday he plans to bale up these parts, hoist them on flatbed trailers, and move back home to Iowa. He'll get out his wire brush and his WD40 and open his own museum.
Herrig: This is the sound you may hear of an old windmill. It's an eerie sound, and it's strictly the brakebands of an old windmill. More than one farmer has asked me to come and chain up the windmill because it will keep you awake, especially in the summer when you sleep with the windows open.
Though windmills have been around since the 7th century, the machine we think of - the American water-pumper, the kind you see in Grant Wood paintings - was invented by Daniel Halliday in Connecticut in 1854. It worked well, but it was expensive, and needed careful maintenance. By the turn of the century, the first problem had been solved. You could buy a mass-produced mill with an eight-foot wheel for $25, and thousands of people did; farmers and ranchers who were settling across the Great Plains. But the windmill didn't earn the rank of American icon until the late teens because, says Texas historian T. Lindsay Baker, many of those settlers, for all their grit, had a secret weakness.
Baker: Many farmers and ranchers were simply afraid of heights. They were afraid to climb their tower for the weekly lubrications that were necessary in the years before the oil-bath windmills. The first successful oil-bath mill was introduced in 1912, from the Elgin company of Illinois. Called the Wonder, because it was a wonder you didn't have to climb it every week to grease it.
The windmill's golden age, says Baker, was glorious - and short. At its peak, more than 500 manufacturers were working at once. The Aermotor Company, the John Deere of windmills, was building 500 a day in Chicago. But after the boom of the first World War, farm prices crashed.
Baker: Farmers entered the Depression eight years before the rest of the country did. Times became hard. Fewer and fewer windmills were sold. In 1935, rural electrification from the New Deal began supplanting windmills with electric pumps.
And with World War Two, rationing restricted the use of zinc for galvanizing steel. By then, most of the windmill companies were gone; and most of those remaining converted their factories to produce munitions.

Since then, the windmill has become increasingly rare, increasingly quaint and, just lately, increasingly profitable for a small network of windmill specialists who buy, sell, and install old machines.
Stubbs: Years ago when I was hauling loads of broken-down windmills home, people looked at me like I was crazy. For once in my life I guessed right.
Randy Stubbs is the owner of Big Country Windmills in Maxwell, Nebraska. Business is surging, he says, because of two late 90s trends: the popularity of nostalgia items, like windmills and old farm tractors, and suspicions the millenium computer-bug may disrupt power supplies.
Stubbs: For the last 5, 6, 7 years, three out of four windmills that we sold were being used just for looks. But the sales already this year, and the year's off to a tremendous start, has got to where 90 percent of the mills we sell are going to be used to pump water.
California dealer Ellen Sattler has never been busier either. She says her reconditioned mills are as popular with Y2K customers as they were with farmers.
Sattler: This Y2K thing, needless to say, if and when the power goes off, everybody still says water, thats a primary need.
MPR: What if Y2K arrives and turns out to be nothing?
Sattler: Oh, do we have to talk about that part?
Sattler specializes in old Aermotors. Aermotor, in fact, is among the last windmill companies still producing; though from 500 mills per day it's scaled back to that number per year. A company spokesman said with demand rising, Aermotor is improving its factory and hiring extra help for the first time in decades. They'll be sending out new mills, of course, but it's likely they will give someone the same pleasure as Doyle Herrig gets from his old ones.
Doyle: There's a lever on the leg here, and as you pull the lever out, there's a wire hooked up to it. Now as we release it, you can see the wind will catch the fans and set the wheel in motion. As it runs, you should hear a click clack, or a clackety sound, as its working.
Herrig stands in melting snow, watching his three working windmills answer every shift in the breeze, blades shimmering. He loves them, he says, because they're so old, and work so well.
Doyle: I just enjoy looking at 'em, watching 'em. I find it relaxing to watch 'em spin. In the summer when I'm mowing the lawn, I like having 'em running, just look over and watch 'em.
Windmill collector Doyle Herrig.