Sunday, March 7, 2010

THE WINDMILL: An American Tradition

Windmills helped define the American West. Although in many parts of the country we tend to think of windmills as an old-fashioned method of drawing water from a well, they still are widely used today in rural United States and abroad.

On a recent trip to Eastern Oregon, I was fascinated with an old Aermotor windmill on an abandoned homestead north of Grass Valley. The dilapidated house and sagging barn spoke to me of a family with long-passed dreams and plans. The windmill, however, seemed to be in good shape–a few bullet holes, but it appeared to still be operable.

I could easily make out the manufacturer’s name on the wind vane, Aermotor, Chicago. What tales of history that old machine could spin!

Aermotor is known as the most popular water pumping windmill of the 20th century. Their windmills have been called the Cadillacs of windmills because of their outstanding design and quality workmanship. Even today, old reconditioned Model 702 mills, which have been in production since 1933, can command prices almost as high as those of factory fresh mills.

The phenomenon began in 1883 when Thomas O. Perry conducted over 5,000 scientific tests on 61 different experimental wind wheels. As the result of these tests, Perry figured out a way to design a wind wheel that was 87% more efficient than those currently on the market. The company he worked for was unimpressed.

Perry partnered with an astute businessman, LaVerne Noyes, and five years later, Noyes and Perry introduced Aermotor Windmill, much to the amusement of their competitors. But, within four years, Aermotor became the dominant supplier of windmills throughout the world. Not only did these windmills efficiently pump water out of the ground, the Aermotor design reduced maintenance costs. By 1904, Perry and Noyes transformed the Aermotor Windmill of Chicago into a major American industry.

A key to Aermotor’s efficiency is its wind wheel which consists of curved galvanized steel blades which are riveted to steel wheel clips which in turn are riveted to curved steel rims.

The pumping Aermotor is governed through the action of a slightly off-center wind wheel counterbalanced by a coiled governor spring. The wheel automatically turns away from increasing wind, because of its being off center, slowing its speed. As the wind decreases, tension on the spring causes the wheel to turn back into the wind. Thus, the free energy of the wind is captured.

Below the turning wheel, a long rod moves up and down. This “sucker rod” is powered by the windmill’s motor, a unique set of mechanical gears that converts the rotary motion of the wheel into a reciprocating up-and-down motion that powers the water pump located deep underground.

Over the years, the company changed ownership and locations, moving from Chicago, Illinois to Detroit, Michigan, to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to Argentina, back to the United States to Conway, Arkansas, returning to Illinois at Decatur and finally to its present home in San Angelo, Texas.

This remarkable windmill can be seen in many parts of North America today as well as
in many countries abroad. Many thousands of them are in service, efficiently lifting ground water for agriculture and livestock.

According to Bob Bracher, Aermotor’s President and CEO, their windmill company is the “oldest and largest water pumping windmill producer in the world.” Further, they stock replacement parts for all of their windmills dating back to 1933, and many parts for models dating back to 1915. That’s American business integrity and ingenuity at work.


Kathleen Ernst said...

I love to see windmills, even if they haven't been used for years. Interesting post!

Mary E. Trimble said...

Thank you for your comment, Kathleen. I've always been intrigued by them, too.

Eunice Boeve said...

Interesting. Here in Kansas old windmills an be seen in various stages of decay, but some I understand are still kept in repair and used. A few may still be wind powered, but many now have electric motors. Now, I'm curious, I'll have to do some asking of the farmers around here.

Heidiwriter said...

I love windmills! We had several on our ranch, one to provide water for the house for many years, and also for the cattle in the pastures. Before the REA brought electricity to our community, the country store used a windmill to generate electricity.

Alice Trego said...

What an interesting story on windmills, Mary.

Every time I see a windmill, like the one in your photo, it reminds me that they are certainly bastions of our history.

Thanks for sharing and for giving us a little history lesson, too!


Jean Henry Mead said...

I also love windmills although not the modern power tubines. The county allowed Rocky Mountain Power Co. to install eleven 200 ft. wind turbines in our subdivision, which has caused interruption in Internet service and lowered property values. Progress is definitely not always for the betterment of mankind.