Old Windmills Make a Y2K Comeback

The 19th century technology of old windmills garner interest as the century ends

Randy Stubbs, on an old Samson.

Randy Stubbs, on an old Samson. "Everybody loves a windmill," he says. "It's a very postiive image in the American psyche. The windmill and barbed wire ... that's what settled the west. People talk about the Winchester, but if you had no water and you couldn't keep your cattle confined, you were out of business."

Photo by G. Wayne Walker Jr.

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In the antiques business, nostalgia sells. But a once-in-a-lifetime calendar change may top even the nostalgia factor in at least one collectible category. The fast-approaching millenium is generating business for the long sleepy windmill industry as surely as the windmill generates power. 

"This has been the biggest year for windmill sales in the last 25 to 30 years," says Randy Stubbs, owner of Big Country Windmills, based in Maxwell, Neb. "Water-pumping windmill sales have been steadily declining since World War II, but from all indications, this will be the first year of a rise in sales. With this Y2K scare, there's a lot of people out there saying 'Why not pump our own water?'"

Those who expect computer glitches to disrupt basic services when the year 2000 arrives are eagerly exploring alternative sources of energy, Randy says.

Recalling pastoral scenes of an earlier era, many see the windmill as the solution. But it's not quite that simple.

"I wish we were in the business of selling wind-powered generators," he says. "That's what a lot of these people really want. A lot of people don't understand that there's a distinct difference: the windmill works on an up-and-down stroke that pumps water, while a wind generator works more like an automotive generator."

Randy, who's been in the windmill business for 10 years, readily admits that his interest in windmills has become all consuming.

"I grew up in the antiques business," he says. "In my twenties, I specialized in horsedrawn equipment, and I enjoyed that. But a friend of mine sold windmills, and I got hooked on that. In the last 10 years, it's become more and more a main part of our business. In the last five years, it's become an obsession."

Randy specializes in obsolete windmills: Challenge, Dempster, Fairbury, Monitor, Flint & Walling, Samson/Stover and Woodmanse. He also works on Aermotor windmills, which are still in production.

"At the turn of the century, there were probably 100 different windmill manufacturers," he says. "Most went under by World War II. But there's still a lot of old windmills out there in use, and people need parts for them."

Add in the nostalgia factor – "People bring us an old picture of their grandparents' farmstead, and say 'We want a windmill just like that one'," Randy says – and all of a sudden, you're talking about a viable business.

Up to a year ago, as much as half of his business came from customers who wanted windmills for aesthetic purposes alone: yard art, if you will. In the past year, though, that number has dropped to 25 percent.

"There's just so many people now who want to pump water with their windmill," he said. "A lot of times, people didn't care if their windmill would pump water, but 99 percent of them could."

Y2K and nostalgia aside, the windmill continues to play a vital role in many applications.

"For a rancher who has cattle in a remote location, it doesn't pay to run electricity five miles just to pump water," Randy says.

But advancing technology will change that, he adds.

"From a practical standpoint, for farm and ranch use, the windmill is becoming a dinosaur," he says. "The final nail in the windmill's coffin will be the solar powered pump, and they're close on that; real close."

Most windmills today are atop shorter towers than the "gentle giants" of the past.

"You used to see 50- to 60-foot towers," he says. "But a 12- to 20-foot tower is plenty now, especially for a decorative tower. A windmill on a tall tower will be a neglected windmill."

Before the 1920s, gears on the old windmills needed to be greased every month or two. Development of the oil bath windmill in the '20s made life easier.

"These days, you can put a quart or two of oil in your windmill, and almost forget about it for a year or two," Randy says.

Most salvaged windmills will need at least some work to get them back in running order, he adds.

"99.9 percent of the mills need to have something done to them," he says. "They've been up in the air for 25 to 60 years; they're going to be worn. But with our parts inventory, we can generally get them going again."

That inventory includes the wheels themselves.

"We're making a couple of wind wheels for obsolete mills," he says. "People will call, and they'll have a motor and a gear box, and assume that they have 90 percent of the value of a mill. But a good wheel is worth as much as the motor itself. Those gear boxes are made of cast iron, and they survive. The tin oftentimes hasn't."

Randy's company fills a tightly defined nitch.

"We don't do any well work," he says. "And we don't do service work. We do some installation, but usually we'll recommend an installer. We specialize in the obsolete windmill."

That specialty allows him to concentrate on a simple machine with 19th century technology, on a key to a nation's past, on vintage pieces that are sometimes hand-fabricated.

"I'm always amazed at what the local blacksmith, farmer or rancher made," he says. "I'm very passionate about windmills. Even on my days off, I'm working on windmills." FC 

For more information: Randy Stubbs, Big Country Windmills, Rt. 1, Box 43, Maxwell, Neb. 69151; (308) 660-1995. (The bulk of Big Country's inventory is at the Maxwell location, but a second office is maintained in Hesperia, Cal.) On the internet: http://windmills.swnebr.net