Towering Titans: Windmillers' Trade Fair Celebrates Traditional Farm Icon

Enthusiasts gather to share a love of antique windmills and windmill models.

Challenge large spear vaneless, circa 1912

Challenge large spear vaneless, circa 1912, manufactured by the Challenge Co., Batavia, Ill., on the Bob Emick ranch, Lamar, Colo.

Leslie C. McManus

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A timeless icon of American agriculture had its day in the sun at the 19th annual International Windmillers' Trade Fair held on the high plains of eastern Colorado in June 2007. The event celebrated the history of windmills in America and the camaraderie of windmill enthusiasts who gather annually to talk shop.

Held at different locations each year, the trade fair routinely incorporates local color. The 2007 event at Lamar, Colo., offered a particularly interesting perspective on the evolution of wind power: The show was held near one of the largest wind farms in the U.S., Colorado Green Wind Power Project. Located 20 miles south of Lamar, the project was developed to help meet Colorado's demand for renewable energy. Completed in 2003, Colorado Green utilizes 108 GE 1.5 MW wind turbines, each 328 feet tall.

Colorado Green is built on 11,000 acres that is also home to a working cattle ranch. Ironically, rancher Bob Emick and his wife, Helen, are windmill enthusiasts. Today, their collection of antique windmills stands shoulder-to-shoulder with state-of-the-art turbines.

Tours of the wind farm and the Emick ranch were a unique component of the 2007 trade fair (held June 13-16), which also featured a swap meet, art show, ice cream social and trivia contest. And, though antique windmills hardly seem portable enough to take to shows, several full-size mills were trailered in for display.

At least one collector's treasures fit on a tabletop. Henry Hinz, Hutchinson, Kan., displayed a stunning salesman's sample windmill measuring just 38 inches tall with an 18-inch wheel. Likely used in the classroom for hands-on instruction, the Halladay Standard model is a faithful replica of an early self-regulating windmill that dates to the 1880s.

It's not the kind of piece you find just anywhere: Henry says collectors know of just five other Halladay salesman's samples. He got this one through a live auction in Austria. "The biggest change in this hobby in the last five years has been eBay," Henry says. "I don't know how to turn on a computer, but my wife does."

In its day, the Halladay Standard would have caused a stir in Europe, Henry notes, hence the classroom exhibit. "Windmills were used for a long time in Europe, but none of them were self-regulating," he explains. "Halladay perfected the self-regulating mill, and this model is an example of the first one."

Halladay mills were built by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., Batavia, Ill. That company ultimately became part of industry leader Aermotor Co.

True salesman's samples were packaged in custom-made boxes for convenient transport. Henry says his Halladay Standard is most likely a display model designed for marketing or educational purposes. Both types were handcrafted by skilled model builders who did not concern themselves with scale. "Scale doesn't figure into the importance of this kind of a collection," Henry says.

The pieces are, in fact, akin to fine art. "The salesman's samples and display models made for Samson were all made of brass, and all were numbered," Henry says. "Many other mills were made of wood with brass action parts. At least two - Woodmanse and Monitor - were made of aluminum with brass action parts. And some had a brass tag identifying the model builder." The era of model building largely ended by 1920, but the unique relics have enduring appeal.

"I remember seeing a salesman's sample Samson on the shelf at the hardware store when I was just a little kid," Henry recalls. "It was a privilege just to look at it. When I was 18, I made an offer to buy it. The store owner told me he'd sell it for $125. My dad was a very generous man, and he helped me buy that first one."

In building his collection, Henry puts a priority on quality. He's not averse to restoring a rare piece that needs work. "I think it looks a hell of a lot better than a broken-down piece," he says. "Good farmers kept their equipment up; you like to see these things looking good."

Henry's had a few full-size antique windmills, but today he concentrates on models. He gravitates toward historically significant mills like the Halladay Standard. "Until about 10 years ago, every windmill I saw, I bought," he says. "Not anymore. This completed the project. I told my wife that if I could just get the Halladay Standard with a vane, I can go in peace."

The windmill models have been a solid investment for Henry. "They've always brought more than I paid for them," he says. "I've already been offered $15,000 for the Halladay." More importantly, though, they provide Henry and his wife, Vera, enormous pleasure. "We always had windmills on end tables instead of lamps," Vera says with a smile. "There's just something majestic about them: Everybody loves windmills."

Modern-day artisan

If you think antique windmill models are rare, try finding an experienced, highly regarded craftsman to restore one. Restorer Garrett Hall, Amarillo, Texas, is one of what must be a very, very small group. "Windmill people tell me 'You're the only one who can do this,'' he says in tones both modest and incredulous.

At 27, Garrett looks more like a collector's grandson than the seasoned restoration artist he is. But he's already spent half his life immersed in antique windmills and model building. "When I was 14, I began working with Billy Griffin, a carpenter at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas," he says. "They were restoring a 14-foot Standard, and I drew prints so they could build a model of it."

While working part-time at that museum during high school, Garrett assisted Griffin in restoration of a scale model for noted windmill historian T. Lindsay Baker. The project led to other commissions, and Garrett's free time (he works full-time as a machinist) has been booked ever since.

In addition to restoration work, he's also built models for the American Wind Power Center and Museum at Lubbock, Texas, and the Panhandle-Plains museum. A diorama he constructed was displayed at the state capitol in Austin. "I even built a full model with a 4-foot wheel and a crank so kids could use it," he says. "On that one, scale and accuracy gave way to ruggedness."

Model restoration is meticulous work; the projects consume hours in huge gulps. One took between 400 and 500 hours."It's a fun way to spend a summer," Garrett says. Nineteenth century materials and finishes must be painstakingly matched, and research is an important part of the process. Technology has given old-fashioned artistry a boost. "The internet has made life so much easier," he admits. "You can do research more quickly, and find parts more easily."

As a kid, Garrett says, he wanted to be an architect. Then he leaned toward engineering. "I like hands-on stuff," he says. "Before I began working on windmills I was into model railroads. I've done cars, military vehicles, boats and planes. My interest in windmills has branched to history, and from there to technology, farming and railroads. I just got spread so thin I couldn't get anything done. I've had to downsize my interests."

And yet … "I'd love to have a full-size windmill," he says. "I'd love to work on one. And I'd like to build a model of a 25-foot railroad pattern Eclipse."

A windmiller's legacy

The nut doesn't fall from the tree, the old saying goes, and it's true enough for brothers Jud and Dan Herrig, Elko, Minn. The two grew up riding around with their dad, Doyle, as he hunted for windmills. Now, in the years following Doyle's death, they're actively involved in the same quest: finding and restoring rare antique windmills.

Their most recent project is a rare Elgin Victor dating to 1890-1904. "It's the only one I know of with a wood wheel," Jud says. "There was no fan on it when we found it (in southern Minnesota), but we knew what we were looking for." Using binoculars to spy detail on the mill's head and castings, the brothers narrowed it down to one of two Elgin models.

After several visits with the owner, the Herrigs bought the Victor - but not the tower it was on."'This one originally was on a wooden tower," Jud notes, "and someday I want to put it on one again and display it."

The Victor needed complete restoration. All of the wooden parts were replaced and some of the fan's small castings had to be built from scratch. "We collaborated with other collectors to get a pattern to send to the foundry," Jud says. But even aged and battered components tell a story. "Any original wood you can find is useful," he says. "That tells you the angle, the number of blades, how far they went into the frame … when you know that, you can reproduce it."

Elgin windmills were known for solid construction: lots of cast iron, a big hub, complex engineering. For its counter-balance weight, the company originally chose a chicken. Later, the decision was made to use a squirrel instead - and that's the weight used on the Victor. But the squirrel proved unpopular among farmers, who regarded it as a destructive critter, and sales dipped. Elgin abruptly shifted gears, returning to the chicken, and the Victor would be the company's only wood-wheel model with a squirrel weight.

The Herrig brothers concentrate on windmills with wood wheels ("They're rare and hard to find," Jud says) and especially look for Elgin, Challenge and U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. models. Their talents are complementary: "I do more of the finding," Jud says, "and Dan does more of the taking down." The latter is a delicate maneuver. "Tear-down can get pretty interesting," Jud admits. "It takes two guys: one on the ground running ropes and the other with a gin pole or a boom truck."

The Herrig family tradition is creating a legacy."'My husband grew up on a farm," says the boys' mother, Deb. "He always appreciated old things, the old style of life, and he hated seeing family farms disappear." Today, a new generation is doing what it can to preserve the past.

What are friends for?

A friend, explains Joe Harper, put him on the trail to one of his most unusual windmills: a Challenge single-header. "He found it at a farm auction," Joe says. "I bought it and after 20 years, I finally got inspired to restore it."

For a project this big (the mill's main wheel is 13 feet in diameter, and each side wheel is 5 feet across), you'd need inspiration. Virtually no wood parts survived the passage of time, the hubs for both side wheels were missing, linkage parts were missing and all of the wheel hardware was gone. With assistance from T. Lindsay Baker, who provided invaluable information, Joe crafted wood patterns he sent to the foundry where new castings were produced. The mill did have excellent gearing, he says, and remarkably, the original spear-shaped counter-balance weight was intact.

The single-header is designed so the mill's two side-wheels consistently guide the arrow into the wind. In the early 1890s, it was revolutionary technology. "The 1893 Columbian World Expo was a showcase for single- and double-header Challenge mills," Joe says.

Today, just two Challenge single-headers are known to exist (a 16-foot model is on display at the Lubbock museum) and both came out of Kansas. Few single-headers were made. "They were just so big and heavy," Joe says. "The double-header was a little more popular, and they made a few more of those." Neither was a bargain. "The single-header was very costly," he adds. "An ordinary farmer could not afford a mill like this. I heard once that they were primarily used in custom grinding or shelling."

Thirty years in the making, Joe's antique windmill collection today spans 41 brands. At the end of the day, the friendships are what matter to him. "I always liked windmills," he says. "But it's the people that make this fun."  FC 


For more information:
-The Annual International Windmillers' Trade Fair is held in June each year; www.internationalwindmilltradefair.org
-Henry Hinz, e-mail: vnh66@cox.net
-Garrett Hall, e-mail: gehall@clearwire.net
-Jud Herrig, e-mail: jdherrig@yahoo.com