Pulling Their Weight: The Windmill Counterbalance

Counterbalance weights on old windmills are more than folk art.

| October 2008

If it weren’t for its folk art appeal, the windmill counterbalance weight probably would not be as highly collectible as it is today. But the windmill weight is more than just a pretty face: It’s a key component of the vaneless windmill produced in the late 1800s.

Vintage farm-style windmills that pumped water came in two basic varieties. Vaned windmills used a tail, or vane, to guide the wheel into the wind. Vaneless mills depended on a counterbalance weight, perched at the end of a wood beam, to perform that function.

Counterbalance weights represented a short-lived but stylish variation of tail technology in windmill production. The Halladay Standard windmill, manufactured by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., (USWE), Batavia, Ill., was the first manufacturer to employ a patented self-regulating wheel that would place itself in or out of sail depending on the strength of the wind. This “folding” mill was first developed with a wooden vane in 1854. Early catalogs from various windmill manufacturers show mills with wood tails.

In the 1880s, USWE introduced a vaneless version of the Halladay Standard. The Vaneless Standard, as it was called, utilized a star-shaped counterbalance weight instead of a tail. This mill was produced until 1916; other companies produced their own versions with different styles of weights into the 1930s. As a general rule, counterbalance weights were used only on folding wheel windmills, while tails were used on both early folding wheel and later solid, or fixed, wheel windmills. “Once they came up with a light, sturdy metal for the windmill tail,” explains collector Bob Popeck, “it was a whole new ball game.”

Weights not only served as a counterbalance but also as a marketing device, identifying the mill’s manufacturer in a recognizable manner. “But basically, the windmill weight just kept the wheel directed into the wind and prevented the whole thing from tipping over,” Bob says. Today, these weights are prized by windmill enthusiasts, such as the Popecks, and collectors of folk art.

In all shapes and sizes

Housing a collection of more than three dozen vintage windmill weights, the Popecks’ Batavia, Ill., home is not going to tip over any time soon either. “My brother warns me that this room is going to collapse from the weight of them,” he says with a smile. The weights range from fairly light (some were hollow, designed to be filled with scrap metal) to as much as 100 pounds or more. Bigger windmills needed heavier weights. “It all depended on the diameter of the wheel,” Bob notes.