Mid-America Windmill Museum Celebrates the Past

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Built of mortise-and-tenon construction, the Robertson post mill is an authentic replica of the first mill built in America.

If you stop by the Mid-America Windmill Museum this month, be prepared to celebrate: The museum marks its 25th anniversary with festivities set for Saturday, July 20. The anniversary event will feature guest speakers, live music, food vendors, tours, and games for kids.

Conceived as a regional tourist attraction by the Kendallville Local Development Corporation, the museum has more than delivered. “We’ve had visitors from 24 countries, four Canadian provinces and 49 states,” says Pam Younce, chairman of the museum’s marketing and promotions committee. “The only one missing is Vermont.”

Members of classic car clubs especially enjoy the museum. This summer, for instance, a group of 200 people and 150 cars are set to visit. School groups and bus tours also find their way to the museum. “We have a sign on Interstate 69 (about 15 miles east),” Pam says, “and a lot of people see that.”

Deep in the heart of windmill country

A total of 60 windmills are displayed inside and out at the museum’s 20-acre site adjacent to a 20-acre campground owned by the city of Kendallville. At least 11 are mills built by Kendallville’s Flint & Walling Mfg. Co. “At one time, Flint & Walling was the second largest windmill manufacturer in the U.S.,” says Jerry Stienbarger, a member of the museum’s board of directors. Kendallville could legitimately be considered the heart of early windmill manufacture in the U.S. “There were once 80 windmill manufacturers in the tri-state area around Kendallville,” he says.

The museum’s collection also includes the final Flint & Walling Star Zephyr to come off the line when production ended in 1954 (the company remains in operation today, now producing a full line of submersible pumps). Other mills on display were produced by companies like Dempster, Eclipse, Elgin, Aermotor, and South Africa’s Southern Cross. “Some were donated,” Jerry says. “Some we scraped up enough money to buy.”

“We got our big start when we bought the Lefty Christopher collection,” Jerry explains. “We paid $154,000 to buy the whole collection.” Many of those mills came from the American Southwest. “One of my favorites is the 1854 Halladay Standard,” he adds. “It’s the most complete Halladay Standard known to exist. It was designed in 1880. It has more parts and pieces than any windmill I’ve ever seen.”

The museum’s Robertson post windmill is nearly one of a kind. A replica of the first windmill built in the U.S., the 54-foot single-stone gristmill features mortise-and-tenon construction. A copy of a mill in historic Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Kendallville mill offers a unique glimpse into the past. The mill is not used, but visitors can view the interior mechanisms.

Historic mills in a historic barn

The museum is housed in a bank barn (one that opens on two levels) built in 1889. Featuring mortise-and-tenon construction like the Robertson mill, the structure is formed of hand-hewed wood. The two main barn stringers measure 60 feet in length, each a solid piece of wood. Donated by Walter and Marie Klinger, the barn was moved to the museum site in 1993.

Siding protects the barn’s exterior, but the interior remains original. “It still has a squeaky old barn floor,” Pam says. “You’re definitely in a barn.” Original hay trolleys remain intact. “People have seen windmills and hay trolleys,” Jerry says, “but they’ve never seen them inside.” Inside and out, the mills churn up long-forgotten memories. “We get a lot of senior visitors,” Jerry says. “They tell us they had forgotten the sound of a windmill. And every mill has its own sound.”

The barn is home to several windmills and related displays, a historical timeline, a theater where a windmill documentary is shown, and a gift shop. Volunteers run the entire operation, performing maintenance, giving tours, and handling events and promotional activities. A 21-member board directs the operation.

Focusing on education

The complex includes a banquet hall where weddings are booked solid from April to November. “That brings in local people who didn’t know about the museum,” Jerry says. A St. Patrick’s Day dance, held as a fundraiser, also draws locals. But the Windmill Winter Wonderland held the first two weekends in December is the real moneymaker. At that event, the entire 20-acre property is lavishly decorated with holiday lights.

Other programs have a strong educational component. The museum routinely hosts large school groups. “A lot of kids don’t know what a windmill is,” Jerry says. “We ask them if they know where water comes from. ‘Out of a faucet,’ they say. That’s where we have to educate them.”

Museum guides teach the children about wind power and aquifers. “They’re totally blown away when we tell them that water comes out of the ground,” Jerry says. A hand pump under a Flint & Walling Model 37 is a huge attraction. “Kids will stand there for hours and run that pump,” Jerry says. Education is also a key component of Kite Day, held every Mother’s Day. Members of the Hoosier Kitefliers Society help children build and fly kites. “It’s all about wind,” Jerry says, “but it’s something fun for kids.” FC

THE HALL INFLUENCE: Discovering the Roots of Flint & Walling Original Wooden Star Windmill

In 2016, Flint & Walling Mfg. Co. celebrated 150 years of continuous manufacturing at the same location at the corner of Oak and Mitchell streets in Kendallville, Indiana.

No clear history existed of the formative years when David Walling and Simeon Flint took ownership of a company that would one day become a world leader in domestic water system production.

From the company’s beginning in 1876 until 1954, when windmill production ended, Flint & Walling invented and manufactured 11 models of windmills. I had never questioned the origin of the company’s original wooden Star windmill, assuming it was the collaboration of the two owners and brothers Amos B. and Henry I. Park.

Local genius and inventor surfaces

But during planning for the 150th celebration, new information came to light that made me see the wooden Star’s origins in a new way. It started when Earle Franklin, a retired Flint & Walling employee, and amateur genealogist, found an article in the 1935 Ligonier Leader about James Hall, identified as a “local genius and inventor.”

Hall had secured three patents and one revision for his invention, described as “a new and valuable improvement in windmills.” He brought his patents and ideas to his hometown, hoping to gain the attention of local investors. “But men of money in Ligonier were too busily engaged,” noted the article in the Leader, “in buying and shipping wheat and other products on which they were making a certain profit” to support, fund, and engage in the manufacture of Hall’s windmills.

The article continued: “Mr. Hall did not give up, however, but went to Kendallville with his invention, where a company was organized and the great Flint & Walling windmill became known throughout the world. It was the starting point of the development and growth of the city of Kendallville.”

Discovery changes everything

While working on another project in the library, I stumbled onto a large envelope marked “Hall Windmill Important Information.” The envelope contained copies of legal documents naming a group of investors (Simeon Flint, David C. Walling, Amos B. Park, and Henry I. Park) and James Hall. The documents transferred ownership of five Hall patents to the investors for the sum of $20,000 (the rough equivalent of $413,834 today). The agreement was dated Jan. 24, 1876.

Although Hall’s theories were probably implemented, in studying relevant patents there is very little in common between what the investors purchased and the original wooden Star as it was introduced. The most significant result of the transaction appears to be the launch of Flint & Walling.

Another document in the packet, dated Jan. 25, 1876, noted that Hall was to “obligate himself to Flint & Walling who in turn agree to pay Hall $3.25 per day,” and barred Hall from seeking patents for windmills or improvements to windmills during his employment by Flint & Walling. Based on the timing of agreements, and the 1878 patent date of the original wooden Star, it appears that Flint & Walling used that two-year period to engineer, design, test, and market the company’s first windmill.

An uncertain challenge

The original legal documents are open to interpretation. I remain confused by the apparent timeline and the evolution of an agreement dated Aug. 25, 1874. It appears that, as part of the acquisition of the Hall patents, Flint & Walling assumed a patent infringement claimed by Sandwich Wind Mill Protection Assn., Sandwich, Illinois.

Under terms of that agreement, Hall agreed to pay the Sandwich Association and be allowed to manufacture and sell windmills “and pay into said association $10 per wheel for the first 50 manufactured in any one year and $9.50 for the second 50 and reducing the price 50 cents on each 50 units until the price is reduced to $5, below which price no royalty shall descend.” There was no indication in the agreement as to the duration of the penalty.

Inquiries to local windmillers and historians as to whether any examples of a Hall windmill exist have proven unsuccessful. I wonder if Flint & Walling ever paid the first penalty payment to the Sandwich association if no Hall windmills were produced and sold.

I can only conclude that Simeon Flint, David Walling, and the Park brothers recognized an opportunity in the acquisition of the Hall patents and access to Hall’s extensive knowledge of windmill design and engineering. The 1876 decision to invest heavily in what was then cutting edge technology confirms that the ownership group (headed by Simeon Flint and David Walling) was truly ahead of its time.

None of this does anything to change the fact that the wooden Star windmill remains one of the most important advancements in Flint & Walling history, propelling the company to its lofty status in the domestic water industry today.

Mid-America Windmill Museum, P.O Box 5048, 732 S. Allen Chapel Rd., Kendallville, IN 46755; phone: (260) 347-2334. Open April 1-Nov. 30: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. (closed Mondays). Adults, $5; 55 and over, $4; children/students, $3; under 6, free. 25th anniversary celebration, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, July 20; no charge for admission.

 Leslie C. McManus is senior editor of Farm Collector. Email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.

Windmill enthusiast Jerry Stienbarger lives in Kendallville, Indiana, where he is a member of the board of directors of the Mid-America Windmill Museum. Contact him at (260) 242-3965; email: jdst13n@ligtel.

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