Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 558-A   March 15, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Two products of Yankee ingenuity -- barbed wire and the windmill -- played leading parts in the taming of the Wild West. Windmills made it possible to build the railroads and establish the ranches and farms which now occupy the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico. In that vast territory, once known as "The Great American Desert, " the annual rainfall is less than 20 inches -- frequently much less. Unless you have lived there, you cannot realize how terribly hot and dry that country becomes, nor how hard the winds may blow incessantly for days, weeks or even months. Windmills made it possible to pump, from veins far underground, water that was more precious than gold.

Windmills had been used in Europe since the 12th century, especially in the Netherlands and Germany, but they were huge cumbersome structures built to furnish great power for pumping large volumes of water or grinding grain. Their sail wheels, 60 or more feet in diameter and mounted on an enclosed tower, had from 4 to 6 radial arms that almost touched the ground as they revolved. On each arm were transverse slats over which a canvas sail had to be unfurled and stretched each time the mill was operated.

In the German type, the entire tower was rotated around a central post, by hand, to keep the wheel facing the wind. On the Dutch type only the top or turret revolved and one of these was preserved in Mt. Emblem Cemetery on Grand Ave. just west of the new Tri-State Tollroad. It was built in 1847 and, until 1916, was used to grind grain into flour and livestock feed.

In 1854, Daniel Halliday, a young mechanic in Ellington, Connecticut, perfected a windmill that was not only much smaller and less expensive than the European types but was portable and had two great improvements. Its wheel was sectional, with wooden "sails," and was automatically shifted into the wind by wind pressure on a vertical vane or tail behind it. Further, there was a weight which acted like the governor on a steam engine. When the wind's velocity caused the wheel to spin too fast, the weight rose slowly and reduced the "pitch" of the sails -- the area presented to the wind. Mounted on a tower or a barn, the power was applied through a transmission device to a pump rod or the shaft of a mill. The availability of water, because of this invention, attracted ranchers and homesteaders. Soon the prairies were dotted with windmills, mounted on crude wooden towers, looming above the stock tanks and every railroad water tank. Halliday's shop was expanded into the United States Wind Engine and Pump Company and relocated on the Fox River at Batavia, Illinois. At the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, the best windmill was the Eclipse, invented by a missionary to the Ojibway Indians and later made by the Fairbanks-Morse Co. At one time there were 30 to 40 such manufacturers. Gradually, the wooden ones gave way to all-steel windmills with curved blades, such as Elgin's Wonder (made in Elgin, I11. ), Woodmanse (Freeport, Ill. ), Baker (Evansville, Wis. ) and Aermotor, manufactured in Chicago since 1888 and one of the few still made.

Almost every windmill you see in Illinois now is an Aermotor with its patented self-oiling gear case. One huge ranch in Texas has more than 100 of them, serviced by a cowhand who travels in a jeep!

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