A Windmill Town Celebrates Local Heritage

Batavia, Ill., holds on to heritage of being an original windmill town

| December 2012

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.

An obvious choice for a windmill town

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.