Windmill Energy Helped Settlers Move Westward
U.S. designers improved on designs of windmill water pump, demonstrating benefits of wind power.
A Nebraska setting sun silhouettes an old-fashioned Aermotor windmill.
Photo By iStockphoto/MotosPhotos
Icons of the rural landscape, windmill towers and functional wind-powered pumps still dot the byways of rural America. Though many a mill tower has doubled over due the weight of time, many more are supported by the trees that grew up beneath them, and, in some areas, those windmills are still on the job — relentlessly drawing cool fresh water from ancient reservoirs down deep. Some say the water-pumping windmill played an important part in settling the country, while others point to its importance in agricultural expansion out West. There may be no sound so relaxing as the creak of a mill superimposed on the trickle of water into a stock tank — and no activity so refreshing as taking a hot summer dip in that very tank. In any case, this romantic rural symbol has an important history that is ongoing.
In bygone days, windmills were built from wood by farmers and ranchers who wanted to stake claims on land lacking a year-round stream, spring, lake or pond. Once the well was dug, hand pumping the water was a long, difficult chore, and thirsty livestock and gardens needed a lot of water — never mind the laundry. The time needed to hand-pump water for stock or irrigation severely limited the size of a family’s operation, so some form of automatic water-drawing device took a high position on the homesteader’s priority list. Many industrious farmers cobbled together elegant, simple solutions that took advantage of an abundant source of energy in the American West — the wind.
Humble origins of windmill energy
Early home-built windmills were somewhat crude when compared with their elegant, sail-adorned cousins in Europe, but pretty awe-inspiring when you consider that most of their designers simply made what was needed using common sense and readily available materials. These early attempts were often high-maintenance by today’s standards, but a couple of hours spent tinkering each week was vastly preferable to hours of hard work each day — work that took time away from other necessary tasks.
Before our forefathers came to America, the windmill had been used for thousands of years in the Old World to pump water and grind grain. It was recognized as a reliable labor-saving device that — while it required a large building (to house the millstones or pump, the miller and his family, and directional controls), huge sails, and so on — was easier to place than a waterwheel, the other workhorse of the day (not counting actual horses) that required a river of a certain size and temperament. Such windmills were certainly built in early American settlements in the East, but westward expansion in the mid-1800s gave rise to a whole new design paradigm.
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