Windmills of the past and present

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 23, 2006

by Ed Shannon, staff writer

There was a time when the steel framework of windmills, plus the fan-like blades and vanes on top, were an essential part of life on area farmsteads. Now these former towers of power designed to help pump water out of wells are becoming fairly rare.

It would be interesting to know if any of the present windmill structures still visible in the area are of the Monarch or Clipper brands. Both were once manufactured in Albert Lea by a pioneer well driller.

A 1962 “Hi-Lites and Shadows” Tribune feature created by artist Irv Sorenson was based in part on John G. Sharp, “the windmill man.”

Sharp’s small factory was located at 309-315 W. Main St. Sorenson reported that in 1899 the Sharp firm sold 32 Monarch windmills, and planned to make 50 more units in 1900.

Sharp came to Freeborn County in 1883 and worked as a well driller or borer. Maybe a few of the older wells on area farm sites could be his creations.

He started to manufacture well-drilling machinery in 1892 and expanded into the windmill and water tank business a few years later. He intended to add a foundry for the making of castings early in the 1900s. This could have been the Star Foundry which had the same West Main Street address and was moved to Waterloo, Iowa, about 1911.

The Sharp Mfg. Co. became the Johnson Brothers Mfg. Co. in April 1909. The last known mention of &8220;the windmill man&8221; was in the 1916 city directory.

Another use for farm windmills was for generating electricity in the era between World Wars I and II. These generators sold by Sears, Wards and other firms could provide a limited amount of power for use with the farm’s operations and for household usage. And when the wind didn’t blow, storage batteries held excess power which could be used for short periods of time. All this gradually ended with the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s.

With the advent of gas engines and rural electricity the need for windmill towers eventually faded away on area farms. The blades and vanes were removed from many

towers. These towers in turn were left in place to serve as reminders of the past, as fancy steel trellises where vines could grow upward, and even as base structures for really elevated radio and television antennas.

Now there’s a clear indication that windmills are starting to make a return to the rural areas of the nation. However, in this newer reincarnation the towers are somewhat different in size and shape and have a more modern assignment. The newer towers of power are used for

the wind generation of electricity, instead of pumping water out of the ground for use by farm families and their livestock and crops.

One of these modern wind generators is located near the junction of Interstate 90 and State Highway 13 northwest of Albert Lea. Other clusters of these towers of power are located near Joice and Ventura, Iowa, and along State Highway 56 just south of Dodge Center.

There was also a different type of windmill once used in the county at Freeborn, Geneva, in Riceland Township and several other localities. This was a type based on an imported design from northern Europe.

Two of the most popular images of the Dutch people are based on wooden shoes and windmills. Today, the residents of Hollandale may wear ordinary footwear. However, the windmill has become the semi-official emblem for this community. In fact, the windmill symbol is used on Hollandale’s street signs and was once a part of the label on some potato sacks.

Yet, before the creation of Hollandale in the 1920s, Dutch-type windmills were an important part of farm life in Freeborn and Mower counties.

The word windmill may cause some confusion. After all, there are still some steel frames around the area which qualify as windmills. These towers of power were once used to harness wind power to pump water out of wells for household use and for use by livestock and poultry.

Dutch- or Holland-type windmills have buildings for their bases instead of wood or steel framework. The blades or vanes are much larger and used to provide the wind power needed to move millstones and grind grain to create corn meal, flour and feed for farm use.

Incidentally, the grain grinding windmills and their large blades or vanes may be closely associated with the Dutch people of The Netherlands. Yet, this type of structure has also been used across northern Europe, especially in Germany and Denmark.

The windmill was once very practical in localities where water wasn’t readily available to be dammed to provide the power to move the millstones. And in this part of the prairie lands, until the availability of steam power and electricity, the breezes and windmills provided the best alternative for grinding grain.