Collecting the Soul of the Plains

FC_V3_I8_Mar_2001_04-1.jpg

Roland ShaferField of windmills

Content Tools

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

' No matter how many artists he invites or how many people attend the festival, Henry wants the windmills to still be the focus of the event. Before the festival even begins this year, he will sponsor the International Windmill Trade Fair and by the time it's underway, the 40 windmills already standing will have grown to 75. Next year, there will be 125. The festival helps pay for that construction and keep the Ranch free to the public. 'We want to put up a million dollars in windmills and never charge admission,' he says.

It's no easy task tracking down a million dollars in old windmills, especially complete ones. Henry says that he's used a several-pronged method of tracking down the elusive whirligigs. First he simply went to local farmers and asked them if they either had an old windmill or knew of any. He has also developed contacts through his trade fair and by getting to know windmill repair people who often found old mills lying near ones they were fixing. His career helped, too. Employed as a traveling farm equipment salesman for 15 years, Henry has hunted down rumors of old windmills across a five state area before working on the ranch full time. Many of them were found in parts on the ground, which doesn't scare him off. 'When you collect something, you take whatever you can get and hope for the day that you or someone else can figure out which parts you're missing.' To find those pieces and parts of windmills is hard enough. Often the metal parts have to be machined or cast and wood blades made from scratch as well - all of which Henry, who admits to being more of a collector than a technician, hires out to others. The hardest part, however, can come when he's not even sure what's missing.

'You've got to remember, at one time there were over 400 new windmill manufacturers in the United States and now there are only two: Dempster, out of Beatrice, Neb., and Aermotor, from San Angelo, Texas,' Henry says. 'There are no new parts for off the shelf windmills.' To figure out what is missing, Henry relies on manuals when they can be found, and, especially, on other collectors who might happen to have one of the same windmills.

Even when all seems to be in place, putting the windmills up can be a chore. Henry likes to tell a story about a 50-year-old Aermotor with 20-foot-Iong blades, which turned out to be so heavy that the crane lifting it onto its tower nearly gave out halfway up. 'But when you've got a guy on a tower in the middle of a rainstorm, you just got to keep going, so we did,' Henry remembers, laughing.

Walking his ranch to find new places to put windmills, he says he's often struck by how lucky he is to live around these machines and on the Nebraska plains. Though windmills have been around in various forms for nearly a millennium, these skeletal, elegant constructions are uniquely American and, he says, simply beautiful.

The Greeks have one word -pneuma - which means breath, wind and the soul. Henry, learning this, thinks it's perfect. The wind, he says, is the soul of the plains and you can see something of it in the windmills upon which it plays. 'There's no prettier picture than the sun setting on windmills,' Henry says. 'Windmills are the most photographed piece of American machinery. You see a picture of one and you know exactly where you are.'

Dempster: A Pioneer Survives

In 1878, C.B. Dempster set up shop, opening Dempster Miller Manufacturing, a windmill and pump store, in Beatrice, Neb. Seven years later, the company began making its own windmills and hand pumps, both of which it continues to manufacture today. 'When Dempster started out, it made products for pioneers,' says David Suey, president of Dempster Industries, Inc., as the company is now known. 'There's never been a year go by since then when we haven't made windmills and hand pumps.'

At one point, more than 400 windmill manufacturers existed at the same time in the U.S. Today Dempster is one of only two companies still manufacturing new windmills, making it the oldest continuously operating manufacturer of windmills in the country.

The company survived not so much by branching out into new areas of production, but by expanding in those areas where it was already successful. Dempster had been known for its pumps across the plains (as well as other farm implements) and today it still is, making pumps that range from those that are hand-powered to vertical-turbine pumps of 500, 600 and 700 horsepower.

David Suey says that, as long as there's a Dempster, they'll still make their old standbys, though, and they don't forget that their past customers are still important. The company stocks replacement parts for mills that haven't been produced in 50 years, making them an excellent first mill for the beginning collector.

Suey adds that last year's Y2K scare did provide a boost in the sales of their classic wind and hand-powered pumps and jokes that they're trying to find a way to revive that interest. 'Now we're trying to start a new rumor - Y2K plus one or something - but we haven't thought of anything that good.'

Interested in attending the Comstock Trade fair? Contact the Comstock Trade Fair Committee at P.O. Box 19, Comstock, NE 68828, (308) 628-4369. The fair will be held June 5-7 and admission is free.

For information on the Comstock Windmill Festival and concerts, call (800) 728-3481 or order tickets online at www.wind-millenterprises.net.