Tales of a Three-Legged Tilting Tower

Three-legged tilting tower with Ace windmill trumps contenders.

| December 2013

  • Standing tall on the North Dakota prairie, this tower rises about 54 feet to the center of the fan.
    Photo By Jim Lacey
  • The tower on the way up for the first time. Several men were involved in this job.
    Photo By Jim Lacey
  • The windmill is shown here in the lowered position for servicing. At this point it is about 8 feet off the ground instead of more than 50 feet.
    Photo By Jim Lacey
  • The boom supporting the windmill in place in a cradle at the top of the three-legged tower. A wood pump rod is used as a safety feature. Should something stick in the well, the rod will break instead of the engine’s gears.
    Photo By Jim Lacey
  • The lower tower section was set on steel piers in cement as a precaution against strong winds.
    Photo By Jim Lacey
  • A close-up of the windmill fan, gearbox and tail. The unusual tail spring is clearly visible.
    Photo By Jim Lacey

In the late 1800s, Aermotor Co. and others built a tilting windmill tower. The part that carried the windmill was the only part that tilted. Moving briskly ahead, Dennis Powers, Ogden, Iowa, wound up with one, along with an Ace windmill built by U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. This unit languished at Dennis’. Enter Jim Briden, owner of Larson Welding, Fargo, N.D., a friend of Dennis’. Jim mentioned to me several times that he wanted a windmill at his place and this one fit the bill, so the package was acquired from Dennis.

Tilting towers were not a good idea. Three-legged tilting towers, while very strong (actually stronger than four-legged models), did not fare so well, as one side was cut out to accept the tilting mechanism. The reasoning behind the tilting feature was to make service easier, as open-geared windmills needed frequent greasing. Because some folks feared gravity, mills wore out more quickly than expected. Remember that oil-bath windmills requiring only an annual oil change (or less often if one forgot) did not exist yet. There were, however, ways to avoid climbing towers. Someone invented an oil tank that was installed above the bearings. By pulling a wire connected to the oil tank, a spring-loaded valve was opened, dripping oil as needed. Eventually, though, you still had to climb the tower to replenish the oiler.

The uniquely designed Ace

Fast forward to the fall of 2012. Jim called me for windmill information. I searched through my books but very little was mentioned about towers and even less about the Ace windmill. Built in Batavia, Ill., this mill had a unique means of running the pump rod up and down. It went slow on the upstroke and quicker on the downstroke. From the look of the system, it was not a good idea and oral history from windmillers bears that out. Many were built but very few survived.

Calling the Batavia Depot Museum, I spoke with Chris Winter who did some searching and sent me a photocopy of a 1931 catalog for an Ace windmill. Now I had something to help Jim in his reassembly, as the Ace’s spring-holding tail out is a bit different than, say, your average Aermotor or Dempster unit. The concept is the same but the execution is different.

An Ace in the hand

It took Jim three years to gather up all the pieces he needed. Then he had the tower, fan and tail re-galvanized and the lettering on the tail professionally painted. Putting up the tower was very tricky, as the tilting section fits in a cradle at the top of two of the tower’s legs. Nothing like having a telehandler to facilitate the process! Jim guessed at the weight of the counterweight. Still, when the mill has been lowered for service, it takes two men to pull the mill back up into position.

I asked Jim how he got oil to stay in the mill when it was upside down. He said because the helmet is tight, if you put the right amount of oil in, the right amount falls into the engine when the mill is returned to upright. Photos show some of the work in progress in getting the mill back to life as well as assembly.


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