Legacy of ‘the windmill man’

Published 11:23 am Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sometimes an item of alleged junk or scrap metal can reveal a part of local history. This was recently confirmed with a letter to the Tribune from Roger Fink of Albert Lea.

His inquiry was based on a cast iron flywheel, 19 inches in diameter. On the top of this casting are the words, “Mfg by J.G. Sharp Albert Lea Minn.” In the center is a hole for a shaft.

Fink’s letter said in part, “It was in a pile of junk we had on the Fink farm near Conger years ago. When I moved off the farm 30 years ago, I hauled it to my brother Wally’s farm near Armstrong. Recently Sue (Wally’s wife) discovered it and put it in her flower garden as a stepping stone.

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“I have no idea what kind of a machine it was on or if that machine was used on our farm.”

Not too much information seems to be available about a well driller named John G. Sharp. The 1911 Freeborn County history book says he came to Albert Lea in 1883. He drilled many of the water wells for area farmers. In 1892 Sharp started to make well drilling machinery and water tanks. A few years later he was producing a complete windmill with vanes and tower for his rural customers. By 1902, J.G. Sharp Manufacturing Co. was incorporated and had two windmill brands, the Monarch and Clipper, plus the Monarch well drill, on the market. The Sharp factory was located at 309-315 W. Main St. He and his family lived across the alley on West College Street.

A 1962 “Hi-Lites and Shadows” Tribune illustrated feature created by artist Irv Sorenson was based in part on Sharp, the person he called “the windmill man.” Sorenson reported that Sharp’s firm sold 32 Monarch windmills in 1899 and planned to make 50 more units in 1900.

The windmill man evidently added a small foundry for making iron castings used in some of his manufactured items, This place could have been known as the Star Foundry which, according to old records, had the same West Main Street address and was moved to Waterloo, Iowa, about 1911.

The Sharp Manufacturing. Co. itself became the Johnson Bros. Manufacturing Co. in April 1909. The last mention of the windmill man was in the 1916 city directory.

There was a time when windmills were an essential part of American agricultural life. Those tall towers or derricks consisting of either wood or steel framework, were intended to be up in the air to catch the wind. Even a slight breeze would turn the paddles on the top wheel. A vane or rudder swiveled the top portion to match the wind’s direction. Through a series of gears and rods, the windmills made use of a logical source of energy to pump water out of deep wells.

There was also a time when farm windmills were almost like barns and Midwest community water towers as landmarks on the landscape.

The use of windmills rapidly declined in the 1930s with the advent of rural electrical lines and the use of pumps which could bring up water even when there wasn’t any breeze at all. Many of the derricks were torn down, and others were used as radio and television antennas or just left in place as mementos of the past.

There are still some windmills to be seen on the farms in this part of the nation. And now there’s the potential for a real revival of these once popular tall structures to generate electricity from the wind.