The wind is legendary for its power to shape the land. But in northeastern Illinois, it also shaped a city. Often referred to as “the Windmill Capital of the World,” Batavia, Ill., was home to six windmill manufacturers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Decades after the demise of that industry, the city holds tight to its heritage.
“Batavia is still very proud of its windmill history,” says Bob Popeck, a local historian and, along with his wife, Francine, an avid collector of windmills and related items. “The American Society of Mechanical Engineers bestowed landmark status on Batavia for its collection of early self-governing windmills, and that’s a tremendous feather in our cap. No other city in the world can say it started the windmill industry and impacted the world as a result.”
Six manufacturers operated in Batavia between 1863 and 1950: U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., Challenge Co., Danforth Windmill Co., Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia Wind Mill Co. and Snow Mfg. Co. Three of those six – U.S. Wind Engine, Challenge and Appleton – were large, nationally known companies. The Batavia manufacturers produced hundreds of windmills annually and employed hundreds of local workers, a significant segment of the population of 3,800 at the industry’s peak in 1900.
U.S. Wind Engine was the first to establish in Batavia, launching operations there in 1863. With direct ownership ties to Daniel Halladay, inventor of the self-governing windmill, U.S. Wind Engine was an important industry leader. The company’s arrival in Batavia did not go unnoticed. “Competition brought in more manufacturers,” Bob notes.
When he invented the self-governing windmill in 1854, Halladay was a partner in a Connecticut firm. That group formed U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. in Chicago in 1857. Six years later, U.S. Wind Engine purchased Halladay Wind Mill Co. and relocated to Batavia. Such transactions were commonplace in that era. “If you look back at early ownership of these companies,” Bob says, “there was a lot of cross-pollination of ownership.”
In Batavia, entrepreneurs and investors found a small community with rail access, abundant native limestone available for factory construction, a skilled work force and waterpower on the Fox River. “All the factories were located on the river,” Bob notes. Perhaps most important, the vast expanse of agricultural land west of Illinois and development of the railroad offered a seemingly limitless market. “All those farmers, ranchers and steam locomotives needed windmills to supply water,” he says.
U.S. Wind Engine, Challenge and Appleton were the first of the six manufacturers to build factories in Batavia. “These were very large factories with multiple divisions,” Bob says. Evidence of an era when things were built to last, the three structures are still standing and parts of each are being used for commercial and municipal space.
Originally based in Wisconsin, Appleton Mfg. Co. was operating from a building outside of Batavia in 1900 when the facility was destroyed by fire, a common occurrence in wooden structures of that era. “At that point, the city fathers encouraged the company to move into Batavia,” Bob says. Appleton seized the opportunity, building a modern, three-story factory of native stone on the west bank of the Fox River. Today the handsomely restored structure houses Batavia’s city government, showcasing the city’s proud heritage and progressive outlook.
That heritage runs through the community as surely as the Fox River. Each year, Batavia third graders study their community’s involvement in windmill history. Displays at the Batavia Depot Museum include windmill artifacts. The Batavia Public Library has published a booklet outlining the importance of the self-governing windmill and history of the city’s early windmill manufacturers. The booklet also includes a walking tour of local windmill displays. Many local business names include the word windmill, and an illustration of a windmill figures prominently in the city’s official letterhead and signs at entrances to the city.
But it is an impressive public display of more than 18 restored windmills that truly telegraphs the community’s commitment to its heritage. Positioned at public and commercial sites throughout the community, the mills are constant reminders of two influences – industry and agriculture – that helped shape a small town in Illinois.
Beginning in 1994, a campaign was launched to “Bring ‘em home.” Private donations from businesses, community groups and individuals financed acquisition, restoration and placement of a variety of locally built antique windmills. The history of each is profiled in detailed signage. New commercial developments are encouraged to include windmill displays, and mills have popped up above rooflines all over town. Unlike many communities, Bob notes with a smile, “the City of Batavia has no restrictions on windmill towers.”
The Second World War effectively ended an industry that was already on the wane, the result of expanded availability of electricity. “The war really put the industry down,” Bob notes, “as manufacturing output and metals production were diverted to support the war effort.” Although a combined U.S.-Challenge company resurfaced briefly in Batavia in the late 1940s, only two American windmill manufacturers – Aermotor and Dempster – effectively rebounded in the post-war years.
But the windmill left its mark on Batavia. “I always thought that the oldtimers wanted to keep Batavia as quiet as possible,” Bob muses. “They didn’t want a major highway cutting through town; they didn’t want any big corporations. Industrial facilities were built right up to the sidewalks, and the effect of that was a tiny downtown with no major artery running through it. Neighboring cities Geneva and St. Charles both have a wide main drag and the buildings are set back. But the richest industrial community of the three was Batavia.” FC
For more information:
—Bob and Francine Popeck, 226 N. Jefferson St., Batavia, IL 60510; phone (630) 879-6290; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
—Windmill City: A Guide to the Historic Windmills of Batavia, Ill., 2008, edited by Stacey L. Cisneros and George H. Scheetz, published by the Batavia Public Library, available online at Windmill City: A Guide to the Historic Windmills of Batavia, Ill. or by mail for $5 (postage included). Make check or money order payable to Batavia Public Library and send to Batavia Public Library, Adult Services Department, 10 S. Batavia Ave., Batavia, IL 60510-2449.
Read more about windmills in Batavia, Ill. Holds International Windmillers Trade Fair and Norton All Steel.