It was a hot, windy day in July and there had been no rain for several weeks. The livestock were coming in to the big wooden stock tank twice a day for water. Shortly after noon, Grandpa discovered the tank was dry, although the windmill was running full blast. The wooden sucker shaft had pulled loose from the gear box at the top of the mill and the wheel was running free at a high rate of speed. Grandpa shut down the mill with the windlass pulley and that swung the tail parallel to the big wheel, away from the wind and the brake stopped the wheel completely.
Grandpa knew better than to climb the steel ladder to the top of the old Dempster mill, so the trusty hired man, Ben, was sent to the top to make the repairs. The wind was blowing a gale and Ben had his hands full as he clung to the wooden platform around the wheel and attempted to repair the broken shaft. In the process he accidentally dropped the axe from the platform and the handle struck Grandpa on the head. The air was blue for a few minutes as Grandpa let us know he wasn't badly injured. At least he hadn't lost his curse word vocabulary. The windmill was one of the most important pieces of equipment on the farm.
The use of wind power came to the Americas with the earliest settlers. Records from the 1600's tell of windmills for grinding grain. Even earlier records tell of windmills used to water the Persian gardens in the 10th century. As early pioneer settlers came to the Great Plains, they soon discovered that there was usually a shortage of water above ground, so they learned to depend on ground water. The problem was to get it above ground so they could use it. Thus came the windmills.
The first windmills were made of wood, the only material available in most areas. These wooden mills, patterned after the early Dutch mills, were too large and unable to withstand the high winds of the plains. These early mills had no tails to stabilize them and keep their vanes turned into the wind.
A man named Daniel Halladay invented and developed the first all-metal windmill in 1854. This mill had a large tail and controls that would automatically turn the vanes away from the wind when the velocity became destructive. It also had mechanical brakes that could be applied to bring the mill to a complete stop. Later, Mr. Halladay formed his own company to produce his now famous mill.
The all-steel windmill became so popular that many companies were formed to build them. Windmills were being used for things other than pumping water. One of the unique mills was the WindCharger. It generated a limited amount of low voltage direct current. Even today, it is not unusual to see modern wind chargers operating to produce electric current to supplement purchased commercial power. Wind, as an alternate source of power on the Great Plains, replaced water power for early settlers.
Windmills have lost their importance in American agriculture and it is hard for some to remember how important they once were. I can remember a large herd of thirsty cattle around an empty water tank in the middle of a hot summer day when the wind had died. It was enough to make me ask the Lord for just a tiny bit of the wind from two days before. We all knew we lived in a land of excesses of rain/drought, heat/cold, and wind/calm, but we often wondered why they had to come in such big bunches. The windmills have come and gone, but we still have the excesses.