Pulling Their Weight: The Windmill Counterbalance

Counterbalance weights on old windmills are more than folk art.

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This Challenge windmill features a spear-shape weight.

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If it weren’t for its folk art appeal, the windmill counterbalance weight probably would not be as highly collectible as it is today. But the windmill weight is more than just a pretty face: It’s a key component of the vaneless windmill produced in the late 1800s.

Vintage farm-style windmills that pumped water came in two basic varieties. Vaned windmills used a tail, or vane, to guide the wheel into the wind. Vaneless mills depended on a counterbalance weight, perched at the end of a wood beam, to perform that function.

Counterbalance weights represented a short-lived but stylish variation of tail technology in windmill production. The Halladay Standard windmill, manufactured by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., (USWE), Batavia, Ill., was the first manufacturer to employ a patented self-regulating wheel that would place itself in or out of sail depending on the strength of the wind. This “folding” mill was first developed with a wooden vane in 1854. Early catalogs from various windmill manufacturers show mills with wood tails.

In the 1880s, USWE introduced a vaneless version of the Halladay Standard. The Vaneless Standard, as it was called, utilized a star-shaped counterbalance weight instead of a tail. This mill was produced until 1916; other companies produced their own versions with different styles of weights into the 1930s. As a general rule, counterbalance weights were used only on folding wheel windmills, while tails were used on both early folding wheel and later solid, or fixed, wheel windmills. “Once they came up with a light, sturdy metal for the windmill tail,” explains collector Bob Popeck, “it was a whole new ball game.”

Weights not only served as a counterbalance but also as a marketing device, identifying the mill’s manufacturer in a recognizable manner. “But basically, the windmill weight just kept the wheel directed into the wind and prevented the whole thing from tipping over,” Bob says. Today, these weights are prized by windmill enthusiasts, such as the Popecks, and collectors of folk art.

In all shapes and sizes

Housing a collection of more than three dozen vintage windmill weights, the Popecks’ Batavia, Ill., home is not going to tip over any time soon either. “My brother warns me that this room is going to collapse from the weight of them,” he says with a smile. The weights range from fairly light (some were hollow, designed to be filled with scrap metal) to as much as 100 pounds or more. Bigger windmills needed heavier weights. “It all depended on the diameter of the wheel,” Bob notes.

The real distinguishing factor of a weight is its shape. Most windmill manufacturers produced weights in their own foundries. Animal shapes were the most common, but weights also represented letters of the alphabet, horseshoes, celestial bodies and spear tips. The Elgin (Ill.) Windmill Co. offered the biggest cross section of animals, putting roosters, chickens and squirrels to work. Other companies used the horse, bull, eagle or buffalo for weights. Several – like the Elgin squirrel, rooster and chicken – came in various sizes, tailored to the wheel’s size.

Some weights were made of concrete to help conserve metal for war production. Two concrete weights were made for Monitor vaneless mills, manufactured by the Baker Mfg. Co., Evansville, Wis.: One, shaped like a battleship, is rare; the other, shaped like a football, is not.  Most weights sat atop a base plate, part of a box or ball often made of tin, cast iron or galvanized metal. Others attached directly to an iron bar. The box, plate or ball was attached to a wood beam extending from the windmill engine. It is rare for a weight to turn up with an intact base. More typically, an intact base must be found separately, if it can be found at all. Every weight was vulnerable to gravity: Sudden descent from a 60-foot tower could break off pieces of the weight, such as a horse’s tail or a rooster’s comb. “We’ve seen weights in all conditions,” Bob says, “but usually are only interested in those that are in good shape, unless it’s a really rare one.”

Hometown heritage

A history buff, Bob is interested in literally any antiquity related to Batavia. Counterbalance weights are a direct link to that heritage. Once known as the Windmill Capital of the World, Batavia was home to six windmill manufacturers: U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., Challenge Co., Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia Wind Mill Co., Snow Manufacturing Co., and Danforth Co.

Bob began the collection about 15 years ago with an Elgin rooster, a Christmas gift for his wife, Francine. “She was thrilled to death,” he recalls. “You’d have thought I’d given her a diamond bracelet.” Cast iron has since become a shared hobby. “Collecting the weights is something we both love,” he says. “Our car is trained to turn in at every ‘antique’ sign. Honestly, when Francine uses binoculars, she can spot a weight or tail quicker than I can and tell what manufacturer made it.”

The couple’s initial strategy was to collect only weights made in Batavia. But Batavia windmill manufacturers produced only a few styles of weights and some of those are hard to come by; each is a prize and none is turned away, unless it’s a duplicate. “Actually we have more Elgin weights than Batavia ones because Elgin made more unique shapes, like the animals,” Bob says. “Someone we trusted gave us the opportunity to obtain our first Elgin rooster, and I just went for it.”

The Popecks have also worked to promote Batavia’s windmill heritage in their community. Batavia’s Administration and Police Departments are located in a 107-year-old limestone building that once housed the Appleton Mfg. Co. windmill factory. Bob (who retired this summer from a 48-year career in city government) and Francine were enthusiastic volunteers in an effort that has resulted in a handsome display of eight restored antique windmills around the building.

Eight additional windmills are located on commercial properties throughout Batavia. The City of Batavia embraces its windmill heritage and encourages local business developers to incorporate restored vintage windmills into their landscaping. “We even dug a well under one and it’s operating,” Bob says. “That way we can show people what Batavia and the windmills it built actually did to help build the West.”  Bob has also taught students about windmills as a component of Batavia history lessons.

Buyer, beware!

Reproductions are a constant hazard to the collector of windmill weights. “There’s a reproduction market out there and it’s darned scary,” Bob says. “The Dempster horse and the Elgin rooster are the most reproduced pieces.” Still, weights are undeniably rare and expensive, and for that reason alone, one might give reproductions a second look, Bob says. “One guy said to me, ‘If you find a good reproduction of a rare weight, go ahead and get it.’” To be sure, he suggests working with known dealers and collectors.

Collectors should be able to identify a reproduction by its condition, though Bob cautions that scam artists are often quite skilled at creating what appears to be an authentic finish. “But there’s a difference between ‘new’ rust and ‘old’ rust,” he says. If in doubt, he says, “scrape a bit of it off to see what’s underneath.”

Most collectors of authentic counterbalance windmill weights keep them in the condition in which they find them. “Nobody paints them or touches them up,” Bob says. “It’s the patina you’re after. They’re just absolutely classic folk art collectibles. You just have to get used to standing in line to bid on them at auctions!”  FC  

For more information: Bob Popeck, 226 N. Jefferson St., Batavia, IL 60510; (630) 879-6290; e-mail: winmill2@comcast.net.