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Curiosity Corner: Prince of the prairies, the windmill
September 16, 2016 Gretchen Deter   

Read more by Gretchen Deter
Many things have changed in this curious world. There are more people (lots more people) and there are fewer resources (lots fewer resources). With more people, the demands on Mother Nature are far greater, and Mother Nature has less and less to offer our world.

Some of the things Mother Nature provides are non-renewable; that means they will be gone, forever. Luckily, other things will not run out or become extinct. One thing in particular is the breath of Mother Nature, or wind. Inarguably, the wind is here to stay, and humankind must deal with it.

In west Nebraska, the wind blows hot, dry air over our parched prairies; there are also gentle breezes quietly shaking the morning dew off misty grasses; the wind can be bone chilling when powerful gales build drifts across snow-blanketed dales; and it sometimes morphs into violent torturous funnels dipping down from hot afternoon skies, creating deadly powerful tornadoes.

The wind has a great power. In our long history, people have found ways to control its power, making it a source of energy to improve our lives. History records Egyptian queen Cleopatra being cooled by the motion of the plumes from exotic birds, or the fronds from tropical palm trees. We learned gentle breezes can cut into the intensity of heat, while hurricane force winds have pounded the beaches of the gulf coastline, making one disappear in Galveston in 1900.

It is only natural for creative thinkers to have found ways to harness the wind. The power of wind has been used to make life more palatable. It has run machines to thresh grain. It has filled the sails of large moving ships. Workloads have been made lighter with the energy to operate farm tools and implements; and pumped water to dry areas far from natural water sources, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. It was the evolution and the adaptation of the windmill that offered settlers living in the open desolate, waterless plains, the opportunity to survive on a land that was once known as the “Great American Desert.”

Windmills sprouted up all over the great prairies of North America. Between 1880 and 1935, it is estimated that there were around 6 million windmills sold. They were so apparent on the prairie landscape that they were often referred to as “steel sunflowers.” Though steel windmills came later, early wooden windmills dotted the horizons everywhere.

There is a photograph in the book, “Gering, Scottsbluff, and Terrytown,” that shows Lincoln Avenue (Main Street) in Gering, Nebraska, with just about as many windmills as houses. One of the greatest landmarks of west Nebraska is the cluster of windmills on a hill near Watson’s Ranch in Sioux County.

Early wooden windmills were the only available power source on the prairies in the middle 1800s. They were cheaper to build, and the materials usually could be found somewhere near a wood source such as river banks. The cost of steel windmills was prohibitive for they had to be shipped from far distances. Hallady Co., and the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Co., were two of the many producers, but they were too expensive for homesteaders. Usually the farmers would purchase the parts and then make the windmill out of local materials.

By the 1870s, all-metal windmills became more popular and by the early 1900s, the majority of windmills were indeed metal. There were about 1,000 companies producing windmills of all kinds. Adaptations were made, but they all had the basic principle of using the wind for power.

Some of these weird adaptations did not work as well and became nothing but lawn art. In the 1800s, there were few who would imagine that the windmills which had produced so much power, would eventually become nothing but ornaments.

Who would have guessed that electricity would be available in all parts of the prairie? Along roads through the countryside, windmills appear scattered around ranches and farms, some still in use. Others appear as upside down crumpled flower vases. Now, grass and wild flowers sprout around the legs of the once proud “Prince of the Prairie.”

Author’s note: Kids and grandkids could learn from a drive around town, having fun by counting lawn art windmills. They might also learn a thing or two about
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