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Windmill Energy Helped Settlers Move Westward

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

| March/April 2013

  • windmill pulling water into a holding tank
    A working windmills and water tower continue to serve this farm.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Kenneth O'Quinn
  • an old mill with a water wheel
    While the waterwheel was another workhorse of the day, it required moving water to make it work.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Skyhobo
  • windmill in front of an orange sunset
    A Nebraska setting sun silhouettes an old-fashioned Aermotor windmill.
    Photo By iStockphoto/MotosPhotos
  • a European windmill with sails on the paddles
    An Old World windmill, such as these found in the Netherlands, required huge sails and a large building.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Kivilcim Pinar

  • windmill pulling water into a holding tank
  • an old mill with a water wheel
  • windmill in front of an orange sunset
  • a European windmill with sails on the paddles

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.

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