While growing up on the South Dakota prairie, Terry Rodman regularly rode his pony to the top of a hill 2 miles away to check on a windmill in a nearby valley. If it was turning, that meant the cattle had water.
As time passed, life moved on. Windmills became just a part of his past, with no special allure. Terry was busy in Jasper, Minnesota, where he owned and operated a blacksmith shop. The operation gradually evolved into a welding shop, and later still into a machinist and manufacturing operation. He occasionally worked on windmills, but when Terry sold the shop in 2009, his hobby became his full-time occupation.
The more he’s learned about windmills – a common part of rural life when Terry was a boy, but less so today, thanks to solar panels and electric pumps – the more his enthusiasm and passion for them has grown. The quest to learn has taken Terry and his wife, Kris, across the country and even overseas.
“It really is my wife’s fault,” Terry says. “She wanted a Dutch windmill, because it was part of her heritage.” In her mind, Kris pictured a small, picturesque windmill she could place in a flower garden. Terry, on the other hand, had a different vision. “If we were going to have windmill,” he says, “we were going to have a windmill.
In his spare time, Terry spent three years constructing a 43-foot replica of a Dutch windmill. It was built in three sections so that it would fit through the shop’s door. Split Rock Creek runs through the couple’s property; the Rodmans placed the windmill nearby. By adding a bridge, a water wheel and a wooden sluice to bring water to the water wheel, it gives the appearance of a working mill.
Inside the mill are pictures and souvenirs from the Rodmans’ trips to the Netherlands. In the past, the large Dutch-type windmill was used to auger water from canal to canal; the water was eventually pumped into the North Sea. The mills were also used to process grain and power sawmills. Most of these mills exist today only as a tourist attraction.
“There are still Dutch families who live in large windmills owned by the government,” Terry says. “They get free rent for keeping those large old mills in shape and doing maintenance on them.”
In many parts of the Netherlands today, Bosman windmills are used to drain the flat lands into canals that empty into the North Sea. “These mills are only 15 feet tall with four blades and four pipe legs,” Terry explains. “They’re so different from the others. The gearbox is a Ford Model A rear end redesigned to pump water. You just have to see it to understand it.”
Terry obtained a Bosman mill from a man he met on one of his visits to the Netherlands. The mill was cut in half for shipping in a container. Reassembly was a bit of a challenge, Terry says, but today the mill is a unique addition to his collection.
The bulk of Terry’s collection consists of American-made windmills, but it also includes mills manufactured in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico, Spain and South Africa.
He adds implements to show how windmills were used in the past. Paired with an Aermotor Power Mill, for instance, is an Aermotor buzz saw typical of those once used to cut firewood. It is the only Aermotor buzz saw Terry knows of. Mills were also used to power grinders, shellers and other farm implements.
An Iron Turbine in Terry’s collection was rescued from a California grove. Manufactured in the 1870s by Mast, Foos & Co., Springfield, Ohio, the mill was promoted as “the first successful steel windmill.” “They lied about that,” Terry scoffs. “It was very inefficient.”
Working from period illustrations, Terry rebuilt the windmill, which has blades of an unusual design. “The second model did work better,” he says. “It had two more blades, a different shut-off and bigger tail.”
A working windmill was once an elegant solution to a pressing need. But the windmill was not without its faults. If not oiled regularly, mills squeaked, a noise that could push a farm wife to the edge of her limits. A task that would be easy at ground level found few willing hands at more than 30 feet in the air – and the early vaneless mills required weekly oiling.
Seeking a competitive advantage, Aermotor Windmill Co., Chicago, launched the Tip-Over windmill with steel blades in 1896. By disconnecting the pump stick, the windmill could be easily tipped. Then the gear could be reached by use of a regular ladder. The model’s success was cut short by a serious design flaw: a frame so weak that it blew over in moderate winds. By 1903, the model had been discontinued. Today, the Tip-Over is a rare piece. Terry has one in his collection (although he’s put it on a stronger frame).
The earliest mills – self-regulating or vaneless windmills – were built of wood with a fan described as a “tulip” or a “box.” Later mills were of the fixed wheel variety with a vane (or tail). By the 1920s, all-steel mills began to take over. With an oil bath mechanism that needed only annual maintenance, the steel mill was an obvious improvement.
Towers, too, evolved over the years. Terry’s collection includes one with a single leg formed of heavy tubing. Another has a leg bent almost in an S-shape. Yet another is mounted to the side of a large barrel used for a high-pressure supply tank. A few manufacturers even produced three-legged towers but the market was wary and sales lagged.
The Twin Wheel windmill, built in Kansas from 1919 to 1927, was on Terry’s wish list for a long time. Finally he gave up and built an exact replica. “You’d have a hard time pointing out differences between the one I built and a real one,” he says. Capable of pumping as much as 600 gallons per minute, the Twin Wheel was used in irrigating row crops. The Twin Wheel was constructed without brakes, so it was not uncommon for the mills to literally blow apart in strong winds. Terry is aware of just three surviving originals.
The largest windmill in his collection is an Aermotor. It can pump water from 1,500 feet underground, has a fan that measures 20 feet in diameter and a pump stick crafted from a 4-by-4-inch piece of lumber. “The gearbox is so huge,” Terry says, “that I can sit entirely inside with the cover on when the gears are removed.”
Terry’s collection includes pieces built by Dempster, Eclipse, Flint & Walling, Fairbury, Gem, Heller-Aller, Hummer, Monitor, Montgomery Ward & Co., Perkins, Samson and Sears Roebuck & Co.
Windmill weights from the early vaneless mills play a prominent role in Terry’s collection. The fancifully shaped pieces – horses, cows, roosters, letters of the alphabet and random shapes – are highly sought both by windmill collectors and collectors of primitive American art.
It’s not unusual for a mill to come to Terry in need of total restoration. He does his own blacksmith, machinist and some carpentry work, and relies on an extensive bone yard for replacement parts. “One of the most tedious tasks is to paint the wooden mill blades,” Kris notes. The blades are made from cypress, and usually last about 10 years. The number of blades depends on the size of the wheel.
Uniquely well equipped as he is to rebuild the decades-old relics, Terry still has to do a fair amount of ciphering when restoration gets underway. He relies heavily on research to restore his mills as true to the original as humanly possible. Contact with like-minded collectors is another good source of information. In 2019, the Rodmans will host the International Windmillers Trade Fair in their windmill park near Jasper. FC
– For more information: Terry Rodman, KRodman@frontier.com.
Renae B. Vander Schaaf is a columnist and author of two works of historical fiction. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; (605) 530-0017.