Following the Civil War, mass migration of Americans westward into the Great Plains and Southwest demanded the design of new devices to aid with travel and settlement of the relatively harsh country. The Colt revolver and Conestoga wagon were key to white settlement of that vast land, but it took a lot more than those two devices to make life on the plains livable. The American water-pumping windmill is rarely mentioned in history books, but the ingenious machine made it possible to settle where surface water wasn’t available.
The concept of using a windmill to tap into water sources was nothing new when mills were originally brought to the prairies and semideserts of America. The first designs for windmill-like machines originated in Persia (modern-day Iran) thousands of years ago. Holland is famous for improving on those ancient windmills, building them with huge stone bases and massive sails. Early American colonists brought European designs with them to the Virginia Colony and built the first windmill in 1621. While initially very popular in New England, the Dutch-style windmills were too expensive and bulky to succeed in the West.
In 1854, Daniel Halladay constructed the first of what is considered the American windmill in Connecticut. Halladay’s design was much simpler than the Dutch mills, and it was much less expensive to produce. In the late 1800s, a basic mill could cost as little as $1.50 to build. Halladay’s mill design used wooden vanes rather than sails, and the vanes were set on simple towers above water wells. Over time, windmill blade and wheel designs were improved.
Aermotor quickly became the largest windmill company in America, largely because of the invention of steel windmill blades by Thomas Perry in 1883. Perry discovered that concave steel blades enabled a mill to be more than 80 percent more efficient than a mill using flat wooden blades. In 1888, Aermotor sold 24 mills. Four years later, it sold more than 20,000 windmills. By the 1950s, the company claimed 800,000 total sales.
By the end of the 19th century, windmills were sprouting up all over the Plains and the Southwest. Many farms and ranches would have failed without the vital water supply the mills brought to the surface. Arguably, the Homestead Act of 1862 would have been far less successful without the relatively inexpensive windmills. Homesteading was difficult enough because of hail, locusts, blizzards, prairie fires and droughts, but in many places, it would have proven impossible without windmills to provide water for irrigation, stock and drinking supplies.
Over the years, gas engines and pump jacks replaced lots of windmills because they were more reliable and worked with the same pumps the mills powered. With rural electrification, motors replaced many more windmills. However, the American windmill is still an important water management tool where power is inaccessible and groundwater is relatively plentiful.
Jack Nelson, a 95-year-old Texan, has worked on numerous ranches in Texas and Mexico and remembers working on mills in the early 1930s in West Texas. He and another hand maintained 24 windmills on the 26,000-acre Barlow ranch, going from one to another on horseback, with a pack mule carrying tools. Although the windmills were fairly simple, Nelson recalls that something always needed to be replaced.
Despite the care that windmills require, they possess a sweeter side. Both Jack Nelson and James Monroe, another longtime rancher in South Texas, remember the peaceful feeling that arose from listening to an old mill slowly turn at the end of the day, during the cool of the evening. Nelson described it as the windmills talking to you, as they creak when the wind changes.
Monroe put it this way: “An old windmill will turn and squeak and squawk and groan, and it’s a sound that will absolutely grow all the way into you, into the pit of your soul.”
Ultimately, the American windmill not only helped farms and ranches in the Great Plains and Southwest to succeed, but those in other countries as well. Argentina thrived with the arrival of the steel-blade windmill, and the mills were used as far away as Australia. Now these windmills are largely relics, but Americans owe a debt of gratitude to these simple towers that helped settle a land.
Julie Bastuk, a native of Texas, lives with her husband and two children in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is still a country girl at heart.