Windmills are yet another of those things we take for granted. Many readers of Farm Collector remember the essential role windmills performed on the farms where they grew up. Others, students of history, understand the role windmills played in settlement of this country. Even those who have no idea what windmills did, but who have deep appreciation for pastoral rural scenes, equate windmills with farm country.
Coy Harris, executive director of the American Windmill Museum, labors under no delusions. Spending his days surrounded by more than 200 windmills inside and outside the museum in Lubbock, Texas, he rides herd over remnants of a dying breed.
"Maybe 50 years from now," he predicts, "this will be the only place you can come to see a water-pumping windmill."
Teaching a lesson on wind power
American Windmill Museum exists as an educational organization to help diverse audiences explore the ways in which people have harnessed the wind in order to live in varied environments.
An exceptional private collection amassed by the late Don Hundley forms the museum's bedrock. Today, that collection (purchased by the museum in 1993) is complemented by a vast collection of rare windmills and related pieces. Large collections of millstones, hand pumps, windmill weights, patent models, salesman's samples and oil cans lend context.
In recent years, the museum has expanded its focus to trains. "One hundred years ago, you could not have crossed Texas without railroad windmills," Coy notes. "Railroads were the first big buyers of windmills. Up and down the tracks, those windmills provided water for steam engines."
It doesn't hurt any that trains are every bit as popular with visitors as are windmills. "We built one of the largest model railroad displays in the country," Coy says, "and our visitor numbers went up immediately."
Whatever brings them in, visitors leave with a new perspective. "When people visit, we explain everything about windmills," he says. "They're already familiar with the big wind turbines, so we give them a good history lesson on the old mills."
Careful, correct restorations preserve the past
Museum operations include an extensive restoration program at fully equipped shops located on the property, where master windmiller Benji Sosa has refined his craft. "He's learned everything," Coy says. "The angles of the blades are all different from manufacturer to manufacturer. They have to be done correctly, mechanically and historically, because we restore the mills to their original factory condition."
The museum actively solicits donated mills from collectors; purchased pieces must be correctly restored. A limited number of wood windmills are erected on the museum lawn, and all of those are restored and rebuilt every three years. Another 200 mills are in storage, awaiting restoration.
It all comes down to time and money. "I still want to raise more endowment money," Coy says. He's proud of the museum's $3 million endowment, a number many similar operations would envy, but he readily admits that the museum can't operate off of admission revenues alone. Still, he runs a tight ship. "We don't borrow money," he says, "and we don't owe money."
Where the past meets the present
Part of that careful management is related to the fact that new technology supports preservation of old technology. The largest wind machine at the museum is a 660 kilowatt Vestas wind turbine. Placed in service in 2005, the turbine has a 165-foot-diameter wheel and stands on a 165-foot tower. It is large enough to power the entire museum complex.
"As long as the wind's blowing," Coy says, "that turbine powers everything here and in maybe 100 nearby homes."
Museum displays also reflect the evolution of wind power. From milling to pumping water to generating electricity with Winchargers and, later, turbines (the first wind turbine manufactured by General Electric in the late 1990s is an intriguing display), the museum's collection is recognized as the largest windmill museum in the world. Eventually, as Coy predicts, it will likely be the only place to see an old water-pumping mill.
"You'll never see windmills from the 1800s standing again," Coy says. "The vast majority of those went to the scrap drives in the war years, and most windmill companies declined precipitously after World War II."
Who collects antique windmills?
Garrett and Bailey Balsick
Among collectors of antique windmills, Garrett Balsick is the outlier. At 23, he is by far the youngest member of the International Windmiller's Trade Fair group, which held its 30th annual gathering at American Windmill Museum in Lubbock last June.
But he is far from green. Garrett grew up going to auctions with his dad and granddad, both seasoned windmill collectors. "I grew up helping work on windmills," Garrett says. He attended his first trade fair at age 2, and has missed just one since. "The trade fair is like a family gathering for me," he says.
His granddad, the late Raymond Balsick, erected 35 windmills at his home. Garrett and his dad, Adam, are beginning the job of moving them all to family land at Calhan, Colorado, a centennial ranch homesteaded in 1854.
There, all the wood mills and rare metal mills will go inside, probably set up on stands. Everything, Garrett says, will have to be restored. It's a tall job for him and his wife and folks. "All four of us work full time and we also have 160 head of cattle," he says. In addition to their day jobs, Garrett and his wife, Bailey, have an antique business that keeps them busy (@BalsickAntiques on Facebook), shipping antiques to buyers all over the country.
Juggling a mix of classes, work and windmills
Nothing if not industrious, as a college student in Hays, Kansas, Garrett opted for picking over partying. "I had a little Mazda," he says. "One time I got two windmills and all the parts into it."
That was no one-off. Through a moving business he operated while attending classes full time, Garrett found a few leads on windmills, including a Parrish direct-stroke mill that was essentially new in the box.
"We found it in the fall of 2013 in my wife's hometown of Natoma, Kansas," he says. "It was sold by a travelling salesman in the 1960s and had never been put up." Built in the 1950s-60s in Earth, Texas, the Parrish's claim to fame was that it was constructed of common components. "You could go to the hardware store and find parts for it," Garrett says.
Having found their way into every other part of his life, it should come as no surprise that windmills even factored into his marriage. "When Bailey and I were engaged, I told her to pick one out and I'd get it and restore it for her as a wedding gift," he says. Bailey's choice? A Flint and Walling Star Model 12 double-geared mill. "I'm in the process of restoring it now," he says.
"A vital part of American history"
The Mast Foos Iron Turbine, Garrett says, is probably his favorite windmill. "Ours is recast," he says. "It's one of eight. There are five originals known to exist." One of the first metal windmills produced during a time when wooden windmills were common, the Iron Turbine impacted American windmill design, but Garrett remains skeptical. "Those bucket blades probably didn't work very well," he says.
For Garrett, it's all part of the story of the American windmill heritage. "We try to find signs, books, oil cans, anything we can find. If it's windmill-related, we buy it.
"The West was won with windmills, barbed wire and Winchesters," he notes. "We're in it for the history. Without preservation, none of this will survive, and it's a vital part of American history."
Family history, too. "It takes me back to my grandpa," he says. "It's in his honor."
Who brings the past down to size?
Tim Cook and Family
At the trade fair in June, Tim Cook, Longmont, Colorado, unveiled his most recent creation: a flawless 1/3-scale reproduction of a prototype Iron Turbine windmill.
A year earlier, Tim completed production of a dozen 1/3-scale Baker direct-stroke windmills (Baker windmills were manufactured by Heller-Aller Co., Napoleon, Ohio). Over the course of that two-year project (which followed a two-year development period), his family played a major role.
"My sister, my wife and my parents would sit at the dining room table with 4-40 bolts and clips," he says. "They assembled each complete wheel for each of the 12 scale-model windmills." The first one was professionally detailed. On later pieces, Tim's wife generated stencils using a vinyl cutter.
The first six sold for $2,000 each. When Tim decided to sell the next six at the same price, his workforce revolted. "They said we had to get $3,000 a piece," he recalls. He protested, saying no one would pay so much. Then he took orders for six more at the higher price.
In the summer of 2017, on a whim, he visited a foundry and machine shop in Canada, where members of a Mennonite community were interested in manufacturing components for his scale models. Tim planned to import the parts for assembly in the U.S. A business enterprise was taking shape.
"Then I was notified of the need to remodel the house," he says in a tone suggesting surrender. Scale model production was put on indefinite hold.
Accepting a challenge
In March 2018, remodeling humming along nicely, a speck of an idea blew in through the window and lodged in Tim's head: creation of a 1/3-scale model of the one-of-a-kind Iron Turbine windmill in time for the trade fair in June 2018, barely two months later.
When he discussed the project with a craftsman who'd built wheels for full-size reproduction Iron Turbines, Tim didn't get much encouragement. "Pat Hunt told me, 'It's impossible. There's just not enough time to finish it before the trade fair.'"
And that's all it took. The home remodel came to an abrupt halt. "But I needed an Iron Turbine to copy," Tim says. Days later, Garrett Balsick dropped one by. "I leaned on that totally," he says.
As soon as Pat told Tim there was no way he could produce an Iron Turbine in such a short time, Tim headed to the shop and set to work. "That day, I made one blade," he says. "It was so easy, just a piece of cake, really, so I moved on to the castings."
Then he returned to produce the rest of the blades. "No matter what I did, I could not reproduce that first blade," he says. "I tried and tried and finally threw them all out and started over." Eventually, of course, the blades fell into place. Tim finished the model just days before it was time to pack up and head to Lubbock.
Small wonders preserve the past
Tim's scale models are so intricate, so precise and the parts are so complex that every single model represents an enormous challenge. "If you looked at it as art, as a sculpture," Tim admits, "it'd sell at a much higher price."
But for his customers — former windmill collectors and restorers, some of whom have had to leave their farms as they age — the models are deeply meaningful. "When they move into apartments or nursing homes," Tim says, "they can't have their windmills anymore. But they can have one of mine, and it's a working windmill model. It will pump water."
Who restores antique windmills?
Like many windmill collectors, Jimmie Christensen, Elgin, Texas, can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by windmills. "Both of my granddads had windmills," he recalls. "I've never found a windmill I didn't like."
He started restoring windmills after he retired. During the process of restoring a Dandy Irrigator, he learned that the museum collection did not have one. When he completed the restoration, he donated it in memory of the late Chuck Jones, a collector/restorer from Kansas.
Built from 1919-25 by Challenge Windmill & Mfg. Co., Batavia, Illinois, the Dandy Irrigator was available in sizes up to 20 feet in diameter. "The off-center wheel automatically turns away from the wind as the wind increases," Jimmie says. "It has a weighted arm that acts like a spring; it brings the wheel back to face the wind."
The Dandy has long been a part of the landscape of his life. "I have known of this windmill since I was a young boy, as long as I can remember," he says. "It was set up west of Elgin, which is east of Austin. They used it to pump water from a reservoir for a home and livestock. It was there many, many years."
Jimmie's interest in the old mills is rooted in the ingenuity they demonstrate. "Necessity brought about progress," he says. "With no windmill, there's no water. And with no water, you've got no place to live." FC
For more information: The 31st annual Windmiller's Trade Fair will be held June 12-14, 2019, at the Kimmel Ag Expo Center in Syracuse, Nebraska.
American Windmill Museum, 1701 Canyon Lake Dr., Lubbock, TX 79403; (806) 747-8734; www.windmill.com.
Garrett Balsick, (719) 472-4812.
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.