Windmills play a powerful role both in Texas' past and present.
Windmills capture the imagination like no other structure on the Texas prairie. The tall structures resembling manmade daisies that have sprouted on the desolate countryside continue to nourish life nearly 150 years after they were first introduced to the American landscape.
The first windmills brought to Texas came with the Dutch and German settlers. The European-style mills required constant attention to operate. They were most often used to power grindstones or light industries.
A four-bladed "Dutch" windmill from 1870 survives in Victoria's Memorial Square at East Commercial and De Leon streets. The mechanical parts of the mill were made in Germany before 1860 and brought to a homestead near Goliad. It was later moved to a farm outside of Victoria, where it was used for several years until it fell into disrepair. Henry Ford tried to buy the mill for his Michigan museum, but the owners decided to donate it to the city instead.
The Windmill Museum in Nederland's Tex Ritter Park is a model of a Dutch windmill with 25-foot blades that revolve, but it was never a working mill. The three-story building contains artifacts of the city's founding, mementos of famous country musician Ritter, who lived nearby as a child, and other treasures (1500 Boston Ave.).
The American windmill was born when Daniel Halladay, a Connecticut mechanic, devised a wind turbine that had blades that automatically varied their pitch as the wind increased to control its speed. Later models had vanes or "tails" that would pivot away from increasing winds. The self-regulating machines meant that water could be pumped without constant human attention.
The railroads were the first to see the potential for wind-powered mechanical pumps to supply water for their steam engines. It wasn't until after the Civil War that mass-produced wind machines began to pour into Texas. Barbed wire sectioned off the open range and forced ranchers to find alternative sources of water.
A cowpoke who could also fix a windmill might earn as much as four times the monthly salary of one who was afraid of heights. The King Ranch in South Texas still has more than 250 windmills. The fabled XIT Ranch in the Panhandle had 335 windmills in operation, including what was believed to be the world's largest. At 132 feet, the wooden windmill blew over in 1926. A replica stands in Littlefield at U.S. 84 and XIT Avenue, but it is only 114 feet tall.
At the peak in 1928, windmill manufacturers shipped more than 36,000 units to Texas. Estimates put the number of windmills operating in the state at around 80,000. The same basic design used a century ago is in use today although some drive electric generators instead of water pumps.
Few of the major manufacturers were ever located in Texas. The Axtell Company of Fort Worth and the San Antonio Machine and Supply Company were two notable exceptions. Their names can still be seen stenciled on the vanes. The KMP Pump Company of Earth, Texas, has built their Parish steel windmills since 1969. In 1986, a group of investors brought the Aermotor windmill manufacturing business to San Angelo. Aermotor is probably the most widely used mill in the U.S.
In Lubbock the American Wind Power Center is one of the largest windmill museums in the world. With more than 100 examples, the museum traces the history of the machines from the Old World to the present. At 1501 Canyon Lake Dr. between 19th and Broadway streets, the museum opens Tuesday through Sunday (806/747-8734, www.windmill.com).
In the northeast corner of the Panhandle, the town of Spearman has its own collection of two dozen windmills of varying sizes and shapes. Amassed by local resident J.B. Buchanan, the five-acre park is a source of pride for the community and will host the International Windmill Trade Fair, June 5-8 (www.spearman.org).
In Central Texas, the Windmill Farm outside of Tolar welcomes visitors to their restoration business. With more than 35 windmills, it is fun to drive among the spinning fans. The farm is five miles south of Granbury off U.S. 377 on Colony Road (254/835-4168, www.thewindmillfarm.com).
Not all windmills in Texas look like giant sunflowers. New windmill farms have towers with what looks like airplane propellers dotting the mesas of West Texas. At 328 feet tall, these white metal giants dwarf the XIT wooden windmill and stand taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Utility companies have invested in more than 1,000 of these wind turbines around the state. One tower can provide the electricity for about 200 homes for a year. Texas is second only to California in the production of electricity by wind power. Wind turbine farms can be seen off I-20 west of Sweetwater, off I-10 east of Fort Stockton, and in the mountains around Fort Davis.
555th in a series. Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.