Vintage Windmills Vanishing from Old Homesteads

The symbol of the farm in America, vintage windmills are disappearing from old homesteads

Windmill

Windmill

Photo by Maria Brunssen

Content Tools

As a symbol of the farm in America, few images are as enduring as that of windmill. But the genuine wooden-wheel article, collectors say, is disappearing from old homesteads fast. "This stuff is rare," said collector Howard McLain, Carroll, Neb. "Original mills carry a lot of value."

More than a century ago, windmills made the Great Plains habitable, harnessing the wind's energy to provide water for settlers and their livestock. But the advent of rural electrification in the late 1930s marked the beginning of the end for the prairie sentinels. "The REA came in 1936, and then the World War II scrap metal drives," Howard said. "From there on out, there were less and less windmills."

Progress in other avenues also spelled the end of an era.

"It used to be, the railroad companies would have a lot of large windmills alongside the tracks to supply water for the steam engines," he added. "But when the diesel engines came along, that was the end of that."

Collectors even have to contend with other collectors.

"There were so many collectors who saved the weights," Howard said, "and threw away the iron."

Every mill manufacturer had a different counter weight. Duplex used a black ball inscribed "Use 26 pounds of stone..." The ball came apart in the center so it could be filled with stones. Another manufacturer used a cement football-shaped weight. Dempster used a galvanized box under a horse. Elgin used a rooster. Some used initials.

"It was a way of identifying the wheels from a distance," Harold said.

Although windmills are still used at sites where delivery of electricity is impractical, Howard knows the mills' glory days are past. But he treasures those that survive as historic artifacts; reminders of days gone by.

"My wife and I were both raised on farms," he said. "And we remember those wooden wheels: they just have a sound all their own. When they're pumping, it's 'clack, clack, clack.'"

The McLains didn't set out to fill a garage with old parts and machinery. "When we established Old Homestead Realty in 1988," Howard said, "we bought an old wooden-wheel windmill to use as a promotional piece. It just went from there. Now we can't even get the car in the garage, there's so much stuff in there."

Within a few years, they found themselves driving through the countryside, looking for iron work for old windmills. But there were no easy finds.

"Sometimes, it will take three or four or even five mills to get enough parts for one," he said.

And some owners are reluctant to let go of an old mill, even if it's not in use.

"We're able to actually get less than half of the mills we find," Howard said. "A lot of people keep those mills for sentimental reasons. We'll find them and locate them, but a lot of times, the owners won't sell. 'Oh, that was on granddad's well...' they'll say. But then they'll let that same windmill deteriorate and fall over in the first big storm."

At the industry's peak, Howard said, most windmills were made in the Midwest. There were countless suppliers, and a seemingly endless demand. "Back then, transportation was a problem (for manufacturers)," he said. "And primarily, where windmills were used, (settlements) were located away from rivers and streams, and people had to pump just to get their water."

The McLains now focus their search in the north country.

"We have better luck finding them in the northern states," Howard said. "The majority were found in Nebraska, along the Platte River. That area was developed first, and that's where the good hunting used to be, 20-30 years ago. But it's just about picked clean now."

Today, at the wane of another century, the McLains have plans to preserve the past.

"Our goal is to start an indoor museum of windmills," Howard said. Finding the right space to house a collection remains a challenge. Meanwhile, restoration projects pile up.

"There's some we haven't started restoring yet," Howard said, "because we just don't have room."

Restoring "Sentinels of the Prairie"

Howard and Barvetta Mclain, Carroll, Neb., collect vintage windmills. But the two specimens displayed in their yard - well - come up short. "They're on short towers," Howard said. "Just 10 or 12 feet." Windmills were traditionally set on towers that ranged from 20 to 24 feet high. And the McLains' windmills once were. But safety concerns bumped up against the tall towers.

"My wife said if I was going to continue to get up on a ladder and work on those things, they were going to have to be lower," Howard said. Working on windmills is a big part of the hobby for Howard.

For replacement cast iron, he gets reproduction parts cast, or if the part is steel, he works with local welders. Replacement wood parts are crafted primarily from cypress and poplar and painted with a good undercoat and enamel. The painting is left to an expert: Howard's wife, Barvetta.

The McLains' collection includes Monitor Bakers (Evansville, Wis.); a Challenge, two Dempsters; two Pipe Raymonds; a Duplex; two Elgins; and the prize, a Perkins from Mishawaka, Ind.

"We can't verify it," Howard said of the Perkins, "but we believe it dates to the mid-1880s. We're in the process of restoring it." FC 

Windmill craftsmen and supplies are scattered all over the country. Howard recommends the Windmillers Trade Fair, held each June, as a resource. For more information on windmills and/or the trade fair: Howard McLain, RR 1, Box E-15, Carroll, NE 68723; (402) 585-4591.