Take a drive in Wisconsin farm country and it won’t take you long to spot a structure that was instrumental to the development of agriculture: the windmill.
Some are rusty towers standing in the middle of a hilly field. Others are closer to the farm buildings, some with hand-pumps at the base. Some have been repurposed to host television antennas. Some still have the full fan, and a few are still fully operational.
I enjoy looking for windmills and love to stop for a photo. They represent a simpler time in rural America and were the lifeblood of millions of farms that wouldn’t exist without the ability to pump water from underground.
Humans have harnessed the energy of the wind for thousands of years, from sailboats for transportation to modern wind turbines.
The Dutch refined the windmill for draining lakes and marshes, and American settlers used wind power to help grind grain, cut wood and pump water. The development of the steel blades for the fan-type windmill in the late 1800s set off a revolution across the American homesteads.
According to a website on wind power by Darrell Dodge of Littleton, Colo., between 1850 and 1970, more than 6 million small windmills (1 horsepower or less) were installed in the U.S., with the primary use of providing water for farm homes and livestock.
Our farm had a windmill, made by the ubiquitous Aermotor Windmill Co., which was emblazoned on the tail. The company started making windmills in 1888 and still makes them today.
The farm’s windmill was used at least through the end of the 1940s as electricity did not arrive until then. The mill would draw water from the well and fill a rock cistern in the hillside, which would provide water to the house and the barn through gravity.
Eventually an electric pump was installed, but the tower, blades and tail vane stood for many years. The blades eventually stopped turning after it was no longer maintained or the friction brake was set. I’m not sure which.
But whenever a stiff wind blew down the valley, you could hear the metallic screech of the friction brake as it tried to turn the blade out of the wind.
My dad sold the tower and fan assembly to an Amish farmer a few years ago, but we continue to use the well. Our pressure tank sits on the bottom of the cistern. The cistern still holds water, which we found out the hard way a few years ago when the metal pressure tank sprang a leak and the cistern filled. Even though the fuse box was underwater, it never shorted out.
My parents drilled a newer high-capacity well in the early 1970s to handle a larger dairy herd, but the old well has much better water. There is no iron — a rarity in these parts — and the taste is delicious.
We’ve had some maintenance issues the past few years with the old well design, so we are putting in a new well to provide much more capacity and less chance of freeze-up. But I’m in no hurry to shut down the old well, especially if the water from the new one isn’t as good.
The windmill is gone, but when the wind blows hard, I remember.