Collecting the Soul of the Plains
Roland ShaferField of windmills
Photos by Roland Shafer
A house stands atop a hill near the town of Comstock in central Nebraska. From its doorstep, the plains roll away into the distance. There are grasses and trees, but, as is often the case in the United States' plains areas, what this house faces mostly are the blue skies and wind.
Wind is a constant here on the plains and became, for the settlers who put down new roots along the broad 'valley' between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, a natural resource. Near that house on a hill stand more than 40 examples of how settlers used to 'harvest' that resource, in the form of one of the world's largest standing windmill collections.
It all began three years ago. Henry Nuxoll was repairing a windmill frame in order to hang a large Christmas star decoration, when he decided that the tower should be used for its intended purpose. After he had repaired the windmill, he found that he had enjoyed the work and began refurbishing others as a hobby. Discovering that there was money to be made in the sale of old windmills, his hobby became an investment. His investment, he says, then became a business and, finally, an obsession. 'I thought I ought to have every windmill that came across my path,' Henry remembers.
The hilltop house has come to be known as the Dempster House, named for the Nebraska windmill manufacturer and the 15 namesake windmills that will soon surround it - one of each type the company made. The 40 acres around it is called The 2nd Wind Ranch, founded as a non-profit organization last year. Henry says he started the organization for a number of reasons, including developing tourism in the area; providing jobs in a town which is in need of new employment sources; preserving and restoring the heritage of windmills; and, perhaps most importantly, keeping the town of Comstock on the map.
It could be argued that, without windmills, towns like Comstock (pop. 130) would never have existed. 'Windmills allowed people to homestead far away from rivers and streams,' Henry says. 'They're still practical in a lot of remote areas as a cost free energy source and source of water.'
But practicality is hardly what Henry Nuxoll's collection is all about. Sure, he's quick to point out all the uses of windmills, from grinding feed to sawing wood, but, for Henry, windmills are a symbol of American perseverance. 'Over in Kearney they have the Archway, which is a testimony to the Oregon and Mormon Trails that went through there,' Henry points out. 'To me, that's a testament to those people who left Nebraska. Windmills are a testament to those who stayed.'
Henry wants as many people as possible to see that testament. Last year, he held the first Comstock Windmill. Festival. Based on a concert he had held on the 2nd Wind Ranch the year before that had drawn 400 people, he invited country singer Brad Paisley to the event and increased attendance ten-fold. This year, the festival will feature more than 30 performers, including 15 headliners with 36 number one country hits. Henry expects nearly 40,000 people to attend his 'big show near a small town
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