H.M. Fletcher grew as tired of buying feed for the horses that pulled
his wagon as future generations of Texans wearied of high gasoline
Could be he figured he might make some money. Or maybe he just decided
to have a little fun.
Whatever his inspiration, the Plainview
man took action on an idea he believed would put Old Dobbin to pasture
for good -- a wagon that did not require four-legged energy. He was
not alone in thinking about other ways to get around, of course. Already,
horseless carriages powered by gasoline engines competed with buggies
and wagons on the nation’s streets and unpaved roadways.
But Fletcher envisioned a different sort of horseless carriage, one
that did not rely on fossil fuel. His invention would harness as its
power source one of nature’s elemental forces: the wind.
Some time in 1910, Fletcher pulled a wagon into his barn, laid out
his tools and went to work. What emerged definitely got the attention
of his Hale County neighbors. In fact, folks were still talking about
it 70 years later.
Using the wind as a means of locomotion was not a new idea. Man had
been plying the seas and rivers in sailing vessels for centuries.
Even using the wind to propel a wagon was not an original concept.
In 1853, entrepreneur William Thomas demonstrated a wind-powered prairie
schooner to the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth in what was then the
Kansas Territory. Thomas’ invention extended 25 feet in length. It
had 12-foot wheels and a single sail on a 7-foot mast.
Thomas envisioned a fleet of sailing wagons rolling along the Santa
Fe Trail, moving people and goods across the plains. But as one historian
later put it, when the prototype wind wagon crashed, Thomas’ potential
financial backers became Doubting Thomases and pulled their support.
The would-be CEO of the Overland Navigation Co. blew out of Kansas
Samuel Peppard of Jefferson County, Kan. was the next creative thinker
to build a wind wagon. What became of his 1860 effort is best summarized
by what folks soon called it -- Peppard’s Folly.
A half century later in the Texas
Panhandle, Fletcher concluded that hoisting a sail on a wagon
was the wrong approach. If windmills could suck water out of the earth,
he reasoned, they could power a wagon.
So Fletcher raised a windmill in the back of a wagon. If he made any
drawings of his invention, they are not known today. This much is
surmised: Gears connected to the sucker rod somehow turned the wheels.
He also developed a steering system.
As late as the 1970s, a few old-timers in the Panhandle
remembered having heard about the wind wagon. They said Fletcher’s
big moment came when he climbed in his windmill wagon and tried to
ride his invention from Plainview
He made it as far as Canyon,
about 30 miles south of Amarillo.
North of town, a hill proved insurmountable.
L.L. Roser, eight years old in 1910, told a correspondent for the
Amarillo Globe-News in 1981 that he had seen the wind wagon.
“It was just a regular windmill on an ordinary wagon,” Rosser said.
“The wagon didn’t have any specially built bed, and the windmill wasn’t
the biggest there was, although it did make the wagon move.”
Another old-timer, Harold Hamilton, told the Amarillo newspaper he
also remembered seeing Fletcher’s contraption. “Mr. Fletcher also
was going to plow with it if it developed properly,” he said.
Fletcher’s invention did not require grain or gas to roll across the
High Plains, but it did need wind. A strong breeze is common enough
in the Panhandle, but still days do occur. And on those days, the
owner of a wind wagon would be as becalmed as any clipper ship with
Not only did Fletcher’s idea never catch on, his out-of-the-box but
in-the-wagon-bed thinking never got the attention accorded his predecessors
in the wind wagon field. The misadventures of Thomas and Peppard,
the original High Plains drifters, fueled folklore (Walt Disney did
a short animated feature called Windwagon Smith in 1961), fiction
and non-fiction, but Fletcher and his windmill wagon have been forgotten.
© Mike Cox
July 22, 2004 Column
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