The $3 Windmills of Nebraska

By: Alexis Madrigal
July 28, 2010

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Erwin H. Barbour, Yalie, Nebraska state geologist, and distinguished fossil hunter, had a thing for windmills, too. In particular, he liked windmills that you could make at home, for cheap. Around the turn of the last century he hunted the countryside for the contraptions that the people of the lonely plains had cooked up.

“However crude some may appear to be,” he assured his audience of big whigs, “they represent a movement toward the solution of an important agricultural problem.”

In several works on the windmills of the state for the U.S. Geological Survey, he highlighted the importance of windmills in raising water from subterranean aquifers for cattle, homes, and even for irrigation.

“Thousands of windmills are in daily operation saving labor in pumping, many of them being of home made construction,” he wrote.  “Where the windmill is not efficient enough horse power and steam are used.”

Wind was the preferred technology for a simple reason: cost. Engines required both fuel and maintenance. A windmill, particularly a DIY wind catcher, was the most economical solution.

“They are without doubt the cheapest power the farmer can employ on the farm,” an 1892 farming manual declared.

The power at the disposal of these settlers was tiny in comparison to the thousands of horsepower they can use today. Even relative to the industrial power centers of the time — Pittsburgh, Boston, New York — the windmills were dinky contraptions. They weren’t marvels of technological brilliance, either.

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All they did was do the most important thing a technology can: work.

“Homemade mills are, of course, of low efficiency from a physical and mechanical standpoint; yet they are capable of doing all that is demanded and more,” Barbour wrote in the delightfully strange Wells and Windmills in Nebraska, which investigated the DIY mills of his adopted state. “They cost little, wear well, and do all the work that is laid on them, so that it makes little practical difference whether some of them are of low or high efficiency.”

Wind was the power that allowed people to live in places like Nebraska by supplying “the only element of fertility lacking — moisture.” They could use the mill to irrigate a few acres for vegetables and use the cold water to cool their milk, causing more cream to rise to the top. The latter Barbour called “a matter so small as to be forgotten, yet so large as to be of great economic consequence.” Indeed, he linked the windmill to the increased productivity of the “several million dollar” Nebraskan butter industry.

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Beyond mere survival, windmills made life better in dozens of ways. They made life in vast tracts of the United States livable for real communities. That’s why their worth can’t be measured purely in terms of horsepower.

“The windmill has an important effect on population,” Barbour continued. “Without this, emigration would result, and the State would lose not only important industries, but desirable citizens with their retinue of helpers.”

“Shop-made” windmills were considered very high-caliber, but beyond the reach of many small farmers. Besides, why pay when you could build your own from the scrap materials on your farm for almost nothing?

Old wire, bolts, nails, screws, and other odds and ends of hardware, old lumber, poles, and braces such as are common to every farm, enter largely into construction. Even neglected mowers, reapers, and planters, old buggies, and wagons contribute material… The farmer who is inventive enough to build a mill is competent to see quickly the adaptability of certain parts to his ideas. It is this use of old and neglected material which is particularly recommended in this connection, for in making a mill of low efficiency, such as most homemade mills are, cheapness is the main object. Many mills have cost nothing whatever. Others cost $1, $2, and $3 and occasionally as much as $50, $75, and even $150… The writer considers $3 a liberal allowance for everything needed on an ordinary farm for the construction of a strong, satisfactory, and lasting mill…

Each distinct region had a vernacular windmill type as some early pioneer would get knocked off by his neighbors. Barbour took a great number of photos of these mills, which he classified into the categories Jumbo, Merry-go-round, Battle-ax, Holland, and Mock-turbines.

Enjoy these photos of the various contraptions. Barbour and I already have. The USGS publication on which most of this post is based eagerly awaits your perusal at Scribd.

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Beginning in April 2008, Alexis blogged his research for his forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Inventing Green (due out in Spring 2011 from Da Capo Books). This is the first in a HiLobrow series revisiting his online research notebook.

Categories

Codebreaking, Spectacles

What do you think?

  1. These photos and the impulses they document are also a nice corrective to the Depression-era portraiture of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Not that the poverty wasn’t real, or that those were not amazing photos (both true); but that imagery coded our idea of small farms on the Great Plains as an unrelentingly grim slog. It’s nice to see that along with the hard work and cyclical environmental disasters there was also idiosyncratic inventiveness, creativity, optimism, and – as certainly seems to be the case in some of these contraptions – some unbridled glee.

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