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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"


by Clay Coppedge
This may be a bitter pill for some Texans to swallow, but the windmill was not invented in Texas. Neither was the Colt revolver. Ditto barbed wire.

All three are Texas icons credited with taming the wild west, making the land inhabitable and improving the cattle industry. Texas would have had a hard time without any of those three items, but none are Texas natives.

Barbed wire was invented in Illinois, allegedly by a farmer attempting to keep chickens out of his wife's garden The Colt revolver and the windmill were both invented in - gasp! - Connecticut.
Windmill and cistern in Texas
A windmill near Cuero
TE photo
Of the three, windmill is the one that probably gets the least credit for doing the most work. Here in Central Texas you still find a few working windmills, but a lot of the ones that endure here do so more out of sentiment and aesthetics than need.

In all those old Western movies, the Colt .45 and even barbed wire often had starring roles but windmills just stood there and looked iconic. "I do not remember ever seeing John Wayne or any other cowboy hero pulling sucker rod or pipe from a well," West Texas writer Elmer Kelton noted in 1992, adding that windmills served as an introduction to any machinery more complicated than a coffee grinder for many an old time cowboy.
Hale Center Tx Mural - "Hi-Plains Oasis"
Hale Center, Texas mural - "Hi-Plains Oasis"
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, August 2009
While that's true to some extent in nearly all of Texas, it was especially true in West Texas, where much of the land would still be uninhabitable if Connecticut Yankee Daniel Halladay hadn't figured out a way to turn a mill into a windmill in 1854. The key turned out to be the addition of a vane that directed the wheel into the wind.

Some inventions don't change much over time because the inventor gets it right the first time. Halladay's invention fits that category. The first wheels were made of wood radiating from a horizontal shaft and set at angles to the wind. The biggest advancement came when manufacturers began building galvanized steel wheels in 1888.

Other than that, the windmill still works basically the same way Halladay designed it. The wind turns the wheel and a gear box moves sucker rods up and down inside a vertical pipe. Valves open and close in concert with the movement of the sucker rods, and that draws the water out of the ground. That's the bumper sticker version, but you get the idea.

The whole thing was set on a four-legged wooden tower that a good crew could construct over a well in a day. Of course, an important part of erecting a windmill was to know where the water was and how deep the sucker rods had to extend to reach the water table. If windmills hadn't done the work, especially on the Great Plains and in the arid West, the work wouldn't have got done.
Windmill by the pond
A windmill in Central Texas.
TE photo
Today, except in the most arid and isolated areas, the windmill often does little more than look picturesque, and it's good at doing that. Windmills remain a favorite subject of painters and photographers and people who like their scenery spiced with a touch of romance. Windmills represent a blast from the past, suggesting as they do the primitive and isolated way of life that settlers lived.

"Texans have always expressed a particular fondness for old windmills," E. Dan Klepper wrote in his essay, "Sail Ribs and Tailbones." "Windmills are the desert's handmaidens and signal the possibility of life in landscapes seemingly barren of comfort or overwhelmed by isolation. Their integration into the Texas profile is so complete that it is difficult to imagine the land having ever been without them."
A windmill wheel
A windmill in Williamson County
TE photo
Windmills in Montague, Texas
Windmills in Montague
TE photo 2003
True enough. A Texas without windmills is as hard to imagine as open range. The day of open range is long gone, thanks in large part to barbed wire and the windmill. Windmills made it possible for ranchers to fence their land and keep cattle in different pastures, instead of grazing practices dictated by the location of surface water. That enabled cattle raisers to cross breed cattle, which gave us shorthorns, Herefords and other breeds, which has helped keep ranchers and butchers busy for all these years.

Non-native Texans like to say they weren't born in Texas but got here as fast as they could. The same could be said of the windmill, because here is where it found its most receptive market. In 1928, manufacturers produced 99,050 units a year and exported 26,000 of them. Half of the remaining windmills were sold in Texas. The XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle at one time had 335 functioning windmills.

The world's tallest windmill was located on the XIT, but the wind giveth and the wind taketh away. The big windmill was toppled by - what else? - the wind in 1926.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
October 16, 2005 column
Fredonia TX - wildflowers &  windmill
Windmill in Fredonia
Photo courtesy William Cope, June 2014
Littlefield Tx -  Tallest Windmill
"Tallest Windmill" 114 feet replica in Littlefield
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, August 2009
windmill old photo
Family windmill in Lubbock
Vintage photo courtesy Bob Walker

Windmills Forum
Subject: Texas Windmills

It [windmill above] was on our farm in Lubbock, Texas in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The tank was a converted oilfield boiler manufactured by my father. As six and seven year-old children, we would climb the windmill, scoot across the small pipe, and swim in the tank. - Bob Walker, A Texan in Florida, December 20, 2005
Tolar Texas windmill farm
Windmill farm in Tolar
Photo courtesy Sam Fenstermacher 2004
Windmill, Big Bend National Park, Texas
"I took this photo at an oasis in Big Bend National Park. It is a functional windmill. There is a plaque there stating that it was once a watering hole for travelers."
- George Lester, June 13, 2004
Rule Texas mural with windmill, cotton, train and horses
Mural in Rule, Texas.
Photo courtesy Rule Chamber of Commerce

See also:
Cowboy Life on a Small Spread by C. F. Eckhardt
Cowboyin' ain't all it's cracked up to be. It's not all horsebackin' and branding and Saturday night at the dance hall. Herewith a view of some of the cowboy chores Roy and Gene never did in the Saturday matinee... Truly the windmill-powered waterpump with its huge fan atop a spidery wooden or metal tower is one of the great symbols of the American plains, from Texas to North Dakota and beyond. Unfortunately, the windmill is a mechanical device. All mechanical devices have to be, from time to time, oiled or greased... more

Wind Turbines, Buffalo Gap TX, US277W
Photo courtey Gerald Massey, June 2010
Shackleford County Wind Farms
Related Topics:
Windmills in Texas
Texas Ranches & Ranching

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