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Wind Wagon

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Perhaps 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 prices.

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 sans windfall.

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 to Amarillo.

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 sagging sail.

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
"Texas Tales"
July 22, 2004 Column

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