Windmills Helped Settle The West

by Betty Thomason

The 1930’s brought rural electricity that transformed the countryside. Lofty towers with spinning blades, click-clacking to harness the wind and pump cool, clear water fell casualty to the availability of the electric pump. Now as the cost of electricity is increasing, the demand for this simple machine that helped settle the West is on the rise.

Windmills played an important role in the lives of the early settlers of the middle and southwestern states from the late 1800’s to the time when electricity reached out to remote communities. Without the Windmill, the pioneers who forded the rivers and staked out claims for land would surely have wound up in as nomadic existence as the Indians of that period.

Today only a few Windmills dot the landscape. Some work, but most stand abandoned and in various stages of ruin. The gray metal of wooden structures with oblique sails or vanes drooping from their shafts like some kind of skeletal remains, present ghostly silhouettes against the horizon. Even so, the sight brings back a variety of memories for those old enough to remember the Windmill in its heyday. For many, their very existence depended on the Windmill.

Land shortages forced early settlers to move away from the more populated rivers and streams so they could claim enough land for farming and a place to pasture cattle. The lack of water in sun-parched lands posed a life or death situation. The pioneers moving into the West found only occasional water holes, seeps, and rarely, a spring. Generally the stagnant water from these seeps and bogs contained insects, snakes, dead animals and disease-causing bacteria. Numerous pools of water were brackish and even poisonous.

To obtain potable water, the early landowners dug wells. They used a rope and pulley to bring water out of the well by the bucket full. Some wells caved in unless landowners lined them with wood or stone.

People away from a water source built cisterns to catch rainwater that rolled off their rooftops. The water, filled with mosquito larva, dead insects and dirt off the roof, tasted terrible. The introduction of the Windmill and a storage tank brought clean water.

Windmill enthusiasts, collectors, and conservationists spur new interest in Windmills from time to time and some believe the water pumping Windmill will make a comeback.

One rancher on a vast West Texas spread, like so many cattle raisers over this country, still maintains Windmills rather than electric pumps on remote sections of his land. “It’s not profitable or feasible to try to string miles and miles of wire across pasture land to fill the stock tanks,” the rancher said. “The voltage is decreased with such long lines and storms tear down the best strung electrical wires.” Both problems result in the electric pump being turned off and creating a dangerous situation with no water for the cattle.

Some farmers, ranchers or nostalgic buffs keep working Windmills on their properties for old time’s sake. One such family, Wiley and Elizabeth Gooch, 1906 pioneers to West Texas, dug a well and erected an Aermotor Windmill in their yard in town after retiring from farming in 1928. This was the couples only source of water until they hooked up with the city much later.

“After Wiley died in 1933, my Windmill pumped enough water for me to raise a garden and fruit trees, I cut down on my grocery bill by growing my own fruits and vegetables for the table and for canning,” Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth described stormy nights when the Windmill blades revolved with such fury they echoed each clap of thunder like some mad musician banging his brass cymbals. While lightning lit the scene with each flash, Elizabeth said it brought back great memories of raising her five children on the farm in a time when the family’s livelihood depended on the Windmill. She did not feel afraid being alone during bad storms as long as she could hear the rattle of the Windmill.

Moreover, on quiet nights, Elizabeth said she listened to the gentle purring of the rotary wheel. The calming effect reminded her of more peaceful times when she had fried chicken and cooked pinto beans over a campfire. Then, the family picnicked in the late evening under a shady grove of trees a few feet from their Windmill. Usually, after everyone left the picnic, family members took turns taking quick summer night showers under a tap attached to the water tank that perched high on a platform beside the Windmill.

Few Windmill manufacturing companies are in business today because of decreased demand. However, Aermotor continues to be a leading Windmill producer since La Verne Noyes founded the company in 1888. according to the company, more Windmills are pumping water today than at the turn of the century. The sale of windmills is increasing worldwide.

When the railroads came into existence, workers erected Windmills with water storage tanks beside the track about thirty miles apart. The stored water quenched the thirst of the railroad workers, replenished the water reserves on the trains, and supplied the steam locomotives. Dan Haliday’s self regulating windmill, with a weight that automatically threw itself out of gear in high winds, became the machine of choice in the mid-1800s by the railroads. Other competitors cornered the market years later.

Eighty-year old Newman Smith, a Runnels County Texas historian and farmer, explained that the Windmill does not actually pump water. The rotation of the blades moves a sucker rod in an up and down motion inside a cylinder below water level. This up and down motion, with the help of the check valves, pushes water up the pipe to the surface to store a water supply in a holding tank.

Newman said he once had five Windmills on his different farms. “It was always a difficult job to climb up the Windmill tower with a grease bucket in hand and stand balanced high up on the platform while greasing the open gears. Finally, after gears were built sealed in oil, once or twice a year greasing proved adequate and weekly oiling became unnecessary.”

Some of Newman’s neighbors once helped him pull a Windmill pipe to replace the leathers on the sucker rod. One of the helpers dropped the sucker rod into the well. According to Newman, the twenty feet sucker rod, about as round as a man’s little finger, landed in ten feet of water in a forty foot-well shaft. Ten feet of the rod lay beneath the water and ten feet stood straight up above water. “Well, no one wanted to lower himself into that extra twenty feet to reach the sucker rod.”

A few days later, a young man came by and Newman told him about losing the sucker rod. The young person said, “I’ll get the rod.” Newman tied a rope around the young man’s waist and the young fellow walked his way down the rock-walled well shaft and came back up with the sucker rod.

Cowboys of the depression era discovered they could boost their income from 30 dollars a month to 125 dollars by learning to repair, maintain and erect Windmills and dig the wells, a new profession evolved; The Windmill Boss. Windmill men and well diggers migrated across the plains from the Dakotas to the Pecos to follow their trade. The erectors and trouble shooters faced the danger of falling off the towers or receiving injury from a falling tool. Those with a fear of heights dug holes for the tower anchor posts.

Today there is a new breed of Windmillers still helping to tame the West. Paul Petrocchi and his partner Ellen Sattler of American Windmill in Diamond Springs California are certified Windmillers. Ellen related an incident when they were called to fix the Windmill of a 57 year old farmer who lived 200 miles away.

The farmer told Ellen, known as the Windmill Expert, that his Windmill was an A-E-R-M-O-T-O-R. “Wind knocked the Windmill right off its tower. It’s just hanging there!”

Ellen felt assured that the man was reading the name off the Windmill tail and since their company specialized in rebuilt Aermotor Windmills, they had parts for that brand. She asked him to get a local boom truck and have it waiting the next day for Paul and Ellen to arrive.

At the farm they found not an Aermotor, but a Fairbanks-Morse New Eclipse, which weighed 700 pounds. Lifting capacity of the boom truck was 500 pounds. Repairing the Windmill took longer than usual, but old fashioned ingenuity saved the day. Spare parts went into place and Ellen and Paul fixed the Windmill!

Poets, writers, and painters express their devotion for the Windmill through their unique art forms. Windmill aficionados and collectors express their passion in a more tangible way. None of these things would have been possible without the early settlers who relied on the Windmill to help them survive the harsh conditions encountered in settling the West.

Sightings of Windmills are still rare, but even today, electricity does not provide all the answers for the populations varied water needs. The Windmill’s mechanical simplicity and dependability guarantees its survival. The wind is out there-waiting to be used!