The Windmill
Yesterday - Today - Tomorrow

(From grinding corn to pumping water to generating electricity.)

Windmill still in use on ranch east of Goldthwaite, TX.


While driving along the country roads in the Western US it is easy to spot a windmill
near some of the old farm houses. Most of these windmills are no longer in working
condition as most of them were disabled and replaced with electric pumps many years
ago. However, there are many ranches that still use the old windmills to pump water
for their livestock.

It is hard to pinpoint in history the first time that windmills were used; however,
windmills are said to have existed in Holland from about 1200. The first record we
have of drainage mills dates from 1414. Before those days, windmills are mentioned,
but these must have been corn mills.

Windmills have always played a great part in the life of Holland and its inhabitants.
During the early times they served to power the grindstones used to grind corn, hence
the name ‘Wind Mill.’ They were later used to remove excess water from the low-lying
districts, and to saw timber, thus making the country fit for human habitation and
adding to its habitable area.

In the United States it may be said that the conestoga, or covered wagon, settled the
west and the colt 45 tamed the west. I will add that the windmill was the major
force in developing the western United States.

As the pioneers moved westward from the Mississippi River they found that there were
fewer and fewer streams the farther west they went. There was plenty of underground
water, but the problem was getting it. Many people hand dug shallow wells for drinking
water. These were fine as long as there was plenty of shallow water available, but
this water often disappeared during the hot summer weather leaving the people without
water to drink.

For a good reliable source of water you needed to go down several hundred feet to find
a source of water that would hold up during the hot, dry summers, and it just
wasn’t feasible to hand dig a well this deep. However, there was equipment available
that could drill a well this deep, put in a well casing, add a pump and let the wind
pump the water for you.

As the pioneers moved westward it wasn’t long before windmills started showing up all
across the plains of the west. The early settlers did not get many visitors and
welcomed any travelers passing through, especially if they might have news of
happenings back east. It was always a welcome sight for a traveler to spot a
windmill in the distance because that meant that someone was living there and they
would be welcomed to stop and visit awhile, usually being invited to spend the
night, and could also replenish their water supply.

A windmill was also a welcome sight for the farmer coming in from the field at noon,
hot and sweaty from walking behind a team of mules all morning. He could get a nice
cold drink of water fresh from the well. Most farmers kept a long handled dipper
hanging on a wire attached to one of the legs of the windmill tower. You did not need
refrigeration of any kind to get cold water as it was naturally cold coming from deep
under ground.

Without the windmill the only settlements across the great plains of the central
United States would have been along the Missouri and Red Rivers as there was very
little surface water available elsewhere. With the windmill to provide a reliable
source of water, all the land of the great plains was available and suitable for homesteads.

The ranchers depended on the windmill to provide water for their cattle. Every ranch
had at least one windmill and the larger ranches had several, one for each section of
the ranch. A lot of the old mills are still pumping water on the ranches today.

The average windmill tower was 20 feet tall, some a little taller, in order to catch
the wind above the surrounding buildings and trees, if there were any. There was one
well on the old XIT Ranch in the Texas panhandle that was in a small canyon and the
tower on it had to be 130 feet tall in order to catch the winds above the canyon
rim. At that time this was the tallest windmill tower in the United States.

The railroads also depended on the windmill to supply water for the boilers on their
steam engines. The windmills, along with a large overhead holding tank, were spaced
out at intervals along the railroad so the trains could replenish the water in their

Many of these stops became lay-overs, with small hotels, where the trains changed
crews. Towns grew up around many of these stops. Remember Petticoat Junction?

The windmill played a big roll in the development of the western United States and,
believe it or not, the windmill seems to have a bright future ahead for itself. The
modern windmill, with a different blade design, is now being used to turn the power
of the wind into electricity.

Today we are seeing a great change taking place. There are many windmills still
providing water for the ranchers and farmers in the rural areas and these may
continue to be used for many years to come. Meanwhile we see the wind generators
being used more to provide cheap, clean electricity, without the use of fossil fuels.

There are ‘windmill farms’ with large groups of windmills, in West Texas and Wyoming;
the two places that I know of, that can provide large amounts of electricity for
commercial usage.

The ‘Trent Mesa’ project, located between Abilene and Sweetwater, Texas, just south of
I20, consists of 100 wind turbines, each rated 1.5 megawatts each. Each turbine sits
atop a 200 foot tower; has three blades, each 112 feet long and can operate in wind
speeds from 8 to 56 mph. To get there take exit 255, Adrian Rd., and go south about
2 1/2 miles.

From the road these generators do not look very large sitting atop the 200 ft towers,
but consider this for size, the weight of the rotor assembly is 72,530 lbs.
(36.3 tons), and the weight of the entire turbine is 326,654 lbs. (163.3 tons). The
towers are sitting on specially designed foundations 14 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep.

American Electric Power developed, owns and operates the Trent Mesa project and sells
the electricity produced there to TXU. The project produces enough power for 35,000
homes and represents an investment of $160 million.

The height and size of these windmills; and being placed on top of the mountains, make
them visible from great distances. Traveling west on I20 through Abilene you can
spot them from the west city limits of Abilene, at which point you are still 30 miles
from them.

More sites in west and south-central Texas as well as in other states are being
investigated as possible sites for future wind generating facilities.
These ‘windmill farms’ may someday become a common sight all across the countryside.

More information on the Trent Mesa Project can be found on the internet at:

The covered wagon is no longer used as a means of transportation. The Colt 45 is no
longer worn as a side arm and known as ‘the peace keeper.’ However, the windmill,
that other great symbol of the nineteenth century American West, is now becoming the
twenty-first century symbol of renewable energy.

Now that is staying power!

John Watson

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