Windmill Energy Helped Settlers Move Westward

U.S. designers improved on designs of windmill water pump, demonstrating benefits of wind power.

windmill in front of an orange sunset

A Nebraska setting sun silhouettes an old-fashioned Aermotor windmill.

Photo By iStockphoto/MotosPhotos

Content Tools

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.

Halladay standard

In 1854, Daniel Halladay, a Vermont-born engineer, designed a new type of windmill for pumping water. This windmill had many sections of wooden vanes instead of sails, which regulated its speed of operation by automatically closing like an umbrella in high winds, limiting the area exposed to the wind. In addition, Halladay’s windmill perched atop a simple, lightweight wooden trestle tower, similar to a scaffold — much quicker and cheaper to erect than the European designs. Guided into the wind by a large tail vane, this windmill would pump water from a well into a cistern, pond or stock tank in a variety of winds, without the need for an operator. In 1863, Halladay’s booming business, the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Co., moved to Batavia, Illinois, the city that later became the windmill capital of the United States.

Many other enterprising farmers and businessmen made changes to Halladay’s design. One particularly notable change was seen with the Rev. Wheeler’s Eclipse windmill, which featured a solid wheel (instead of the opening and closing ‘umbrella’ design). It maintained a safe speed by using a side vane in addition to the main tail, offset by a counterweight. High wind speed would push on the side vane and pivot the wheel out of the wind, lifting the counterweight. When the wind speed lessened, the counterweight would pull the wheel into the wind again. This solid-wheel design was simple, arguably more durable than Halladay’s, and quite popular.

Powering expansion

While these relatively lightweight mills were originally designed for pumping water, they also were adapted as power sources to grind grain, chop wood, and handle any other task for which the intrepid homesteader could adapt them. The time they saved was immense, often creating opportunities for a farming family to cultivate extra land, increase their herds, or spend more time on education and socializing.

The water-pumping windmill made the widespread settling of the West possible. With it, farmers and ranchers were able to more easily irrigate gardens and water their livestock from wells, rather than rivers or lakes. In addition, large windmills of 14 feet or greater in diameter were used to draw water into the huge tower tanks and ponds that fed steam locomotives, which had replaced the horse and wagon as the preferred method of quickly transporting people, supplies and messages across long distances. Windmills allowed train lines to spread across the nation, pumping water needed to fuel westward travel by steam.

Enduring legacy of windmills

An important milestone in the evolution of the windmill concerned the use of steel blades (developed around 1870) that were longer-lasting and could be made into more efficient shapes, closer to the wing of a plane in cross-section than the flat ‘paddle’ used by earlier models. In fact, the same principles of aerodynamic lift used to design these early steel blades are the ones used to shape large commercial wind turbines today.

These ‘mathematical’ steel windmills harnessed a wider range of wind speeds than the earlier designs, pumping more water over time. While they could spin quickly even in weak winds, they needed to be geared down in order to provide enough power to drive the pump. The gears needed for this arrangement required regular oiling, and before long, an oil-bath casing was created that would partially immerse the gears in oil or grease all the time. Between the steel blades and the self-oiling gears, the farmer didn’t need to go up the tower for maintenance quite as frequently, and windmills became more durable.

The Aermotors, Dempsters, Baker Monitors, and others that are still spinning away on farms across the nation are a testament to the remarkable engineering and usefulness of these simple and fascinating machines.

The steady beat of a wind-driven pump makes me smile — it is the sound of our land providing one of the most fundamental of our needs. The wind is one of the most abundant natural resources the Great Plains has to offer, and our ancestors figured out how to harness it well enough to survive, all with rudimentary tools and little training aside from their own grit and gumption.

A simpler time

Windmills hark back to an era when anything we had, we built ourselves — and when our lives, while arguably modern, were still quite in tune with the land. The wind and weather provided water for our crops and animals (and families), and we shaped our existence around them, trusting in our own ingenuity and the community around us. Even the decorative windmills of today inspire pleasure when we see the wind harnessed, a reminder of our ability to call water from dry ground, to thrive on new, inhospitable terrain.

There is a joy in seeing the blades spinning, and it becomes complete when we watch the pump gush water into a trough or cistern. The pioneer in all of us knows that that’s money in the bank, insurance against drought and hard times, and we feel a sense of pride and confidence in using and maintaining such a simple, yet incredible device. 

Read more:  Harvest the breeze with landowners all over the United States in the article, How to Start a Wind Farm.

Assistant Editor Kasey Moomau thoroughly enjoys the steady breezes that blow across his small piece of prairie in the Kaw River Valley.  


Wind generators: A history of success

As more people take advantage of the benefits of wind energy, wind turbines are becoming an increasingly common sight. You might not know that generating electricity from the wind is not a recent innovation. In fact, by the early 1900s, small turbines, sometimes generating a few kilowatts each, were being used by enterprising folks as a source of electrical power on homesteads across America.

Imagine what those early smiths, carpenters and tinkerers felt when the lights in their kitchens flickered to life, their spinning creations filling glass jars with sparking energy. Long before the grid was extended to rural communities through the Rural Electrification Act, farmers and other remote holders had powered their lights and other new electrical devices with windmill-generated electrical power stored in an array of glass or porcelain batteries.

Early wind turbines had the dual advantages of versatility and fuel independence over the domestic gas engines in use at the time — a farmer with a hilltop wind generator could run home appliances like a washing machine or refrigerator without going to town for petrol, and electricity also could power a home radio — the first instantaneous link to the outside world that the rural American had ever experienced. While these technologies were relatively expensive to order from a catalog, homegrown versions did exist — the U.S. government actually published pamphlets on how to build a radio from scratch. As wind-generated electricity, and electricity in general, became more common, businesses started to offer more affordable products, and it became more common to simply buy the equipment from companies like Wincharger and Jacobs Wind Electric.