Thursday, January 26, 2017


When I began watercolor lessons, the first scene I painted was of a windmill at sunset. Not original nor very good, but I love both windmills and sunsets. Although they’re difficult to find now, I love the old wooden frame style best. I also love the song the windmill sings during a breezy day or evening. With the windows open, the sound is a lullaby at bedtime. Don’t get me wrong, I love modern conveniences, but they’re a trade-off. We lose something with each part of our past that disappears.

Windmill with wooden tower

Over 80,000 working windmills are estimated to be working now in Texas. You can’t drive on any road without seeing them in the distance. They are of particular service to ranchers in the arid regions. Land that once was almost useless to ranchers became valuable once windmills were erected. The windmill has come to be one of the symbols of ranching and cowboys. Once I started researching them, I was surprised the type I have come to love was not as old as I’d suspected.

Before the introduction of windmills to Texas and the West, inhabitable land was confined to areas where a constant water supply was available. There was no way for vast areas to be settled without a life-giving supply of water. The coming of the windmill made it possible to pump water from beneath the ground, and soon whole new areas were opened up to settlers. The first windmills were of the European style, built by Dutch and German immigrants for grinding meal and powering light industry. What settlers needed most, however, was a windmill that pumped water.

European-style windmill
for grinding grain

Because of its bulk and need for constant attention, the European windmill was impractical for this purpose. The solution to this problem came in 1854, when Daniel Halladay (Halady or Halliday) built the first American windmill in Ellington, Connecticut. He added to his mill a vane, or "tail," as it was called by cowhands, that functioned to direct the wheel into the wind. The wheel was a circle of wood slats radiating from a horizontal shaft and set at angles to the wind, designed so that centrifugal force would slow it in high winds; thus, the machine was self-regulating and operated unattended. Its simple direct-stroke energy converter consisted of only a shaft and a small fly wheel to which the sucker rod was pinned. This compact mechanism was mounted on a four-legged wood tower that could be constructed over a well in one day.

Railroad companies immediately recognized windmills as an inexpensive means of providing water for steam engines and for attracting settlers to semi-arid regions through which they planned to lay track. By 1873 the windmill had become an important supplier of water for railways, small towns where there were no public water systems, and small farms. Many of the very early mills were crude, inefficient, homemade contraptions. One of the popular makeshift mills was a wagon wheel with slats nailed around it to catch the wind, mounted on half an axle. The axle was fastened securely to a post erected beside the well. A sucker rod was pinned to the edge of the hub. It was stationary and worked only when the wind blew in the right direction. The windmills used later on the big ranches were the more dependable factory-made windmills.

Windmill, Pawnee National Grasslands, OK

Windmills moved to the ranches with the use of barbed wire in the late 1870s. At first the water holes, springs, creeks, and rivers were fenced, so that the back lands had no access to water. In the midst of the fence cutting and fighting, some ranchers began drilling wells and experimenting with windmills. Most of these experiments were unsuccessful, however, due to lack of knowledge concerning the proper size of the windmill in relation to the depth and diameter of the well. One of the earliest successful experiments was made eight miles north of Eldorado, in Schleicher County, Texas by Christopher C. Doty, a nomadic sheepman. Doty moved his flock into that area and found abundant water in shallow wells. By 1882, however, a drought had dried his wells; he ordered a drilling rig from Fort Scott, Arkansas, bored a fifty-two-foot well, and erected a Star windmill, which successfully supplied water for his 4,000 head of stock.

Watering stock with windmills spread rapidly. Eastern land speculators began buying, fencing, and running stock on the land until it became ripe for colonization. Among the first of these speculators to indirectly bring windmills to North Texas was the Magnolia Cattle and Land Company, organized by Maj. Willa V. Johnson, In 1884 the company bought two-thirds of the state-owned land in Borden County, land which had natural water resources and had long been unofficially claimed for grazing by Christopher Columbus Slaughter. Once Johnson fenced the land, Slaughter was forced into the use of windmills to supply water for his cattle. By 1886 the Matador Land and Cattle Company (where years later my husband’s uncle worked) began using windmills to water stock.

The largest of the Eastern land speculators, the Capitol Syndicate, began using windmills on its XIT in 1887. One of their windmills was believed to be the world's tallest; it was made of wood and was a total height of 132 feet. A Texas historical marker at Littlefield marks the site of a replica of the world's tallest windmill built on the XIT Ranch. The original windmill blew over in 1926. By 1900 the XIT had 335 windmills in operation.

Not until the King Ranch began extensive use of the windmill in 1890 did that the practice began to spread rapidly over that area. By 1900 windmills were a common sight in the Texas and the West. Inhabitable land was no longer limited to regions with a natural water supply. The windmill made the most remote areas habitable.

Windmill on the Ranching Heritage Center
at Texas Tech University, Lubbock

The use of windmills brought about two of the most colorful characters of the West, the driller and the windmiller, and altered the lifestyle of another, the range rider. The driller was usually a loner and seldom seen by anyone except the range rider and windmiller. He followed the fence crews and guessed at where he might find water, then bored wells with his horse-powered drilling rig. When the driller was successful the windmiller followed and set up a mill. Owners of the larger ranches usually employed several windmillers to make continuous rounds, checking and repairing windmills. The windmillers lived in covered wagons and only saw headquarters once or twice a month. The early mills had to be greased twice a week, and this was the range rider's job. He kept a can (or beer bottle) containing grease tied to his saddle. When he rode up to a mill that was squeaking, he would climb it, hold the wheel with a pole until he could mount the platform, and then let the wheel turn while he poured grease over it.

The range rider was always in danger of attacks from swarms of wasps, which hung their clustered cells beneath the windmill's platform; there was the added danger of falling from the tower when such attacks occurred. The windmill industry's shift in 1888 to the backgeared, all-steel mill caused heated debates in Texas livestock and farming circles. Most ranchers and farmers welcomed the new steel windmill because its galvanized wheel and tower held up better in harsh weather; also, its gear system was better able to take advantage of the wind, thus enabling the windmill to run more hours per day. The backgeared mill could also pump deeper and larger-diameter wells. Those who favored the old wood mill argued that the steel mill was more likely to break because of its high speed, that it was not as easily repaired as the wood mill, and that when parts had to be ordered the steel mill might be inoperative for days. Though sales of wood mills continued, they declined steadily, so that by 1912 few were being sold.

The last major development in the windmill came in 1915. A housing that needed to be filled with oil only once a year was built around the mill's gears. This relieved the range rider of his biweekly greasing chores and somewhat diminished the windmiller's job. Because of the dependability of this improved windmill, worries over water shortages were eased for the rancher, farmer, and rural dweller. This mill was the prime supplier of water in rural Texas until 1930, when electric and gasoline pumps began to be widely used.

Home with water furnished
by a windmill
Though Texas became the largest user of windmills in the United States, there were never more than three active manufacturers of windmills in Texas at one time. Windmills remain an important supplier of water for Texas cattlemen. The King Ranch in the late 1960s kept 262 mills running continuously and 100 complete spares in stock. Stocking spare mills is a common practice among ranchers who depend on the windmill to supply water for cattle in remote pastures. One important ranch worker is the man who rides—or drives—from windmill to windmill lubricating the gears and making repairs.

Because the windmill has been confined for the most part to remote areas, it has become a symbol of a lonely and primitive life, fitting for the pioneer Texans it first served and the cowboys about whom we love to read.

Caroline Clemmons is an award-winning and bestselling author of contemporary and historical western romance. Find her at Sign up for her newsletter here and receive a free western historical novella, HAPPY IS THE BRIDE. Her latest releases are RACHEL and MURDOCH'S BRIDE. 


  1. One of my favorite things...old windmills. All through west Texas and the Panhandle, you can spot them here and there. Most, if not all are old and useless, but still, people leave the skeletons there. It's a shame we don't love the wind turbines like we love old windmills. Thanks for this interesting post--and especially the photos.

  2. Thanks, Caroline, for a great post. Having written about the King Ranch last month, interesting to read about the ranch's extensive use of windmills. I've got to relate a cute story about a remark my mother told me I said as a child after seeing windmills on a road trip through my home state of Nebraska. "Mama, it sure is nice that they have fans to keep the cows cool!" LOL

  3. I, too, love windmills, but I've always chalked it up to my Dutch bacground. They often appear in my historical books. Windmills were used on probably most farms across the USA and helped with water pressure. My father and his mother grew up on a farm outside of Philadelphia, and they had a windmill. So I've heard all about my father climbing that windmill to grease it. But I can imagine the frustration of the early settlers in the west trying to drill their own wells rather than paying someone do it. Because dropping a well is not easy work. And many a bore did not locate water. :-(

  4. Caroline this is a wonderful post. I slept in a b&b once that had a windmill behind it. Oh my gosh the noise. All night. They definitely needed that person who lubricates the gears :-) Your pic of the Ranching Heritage Center reminds me how much I want to get out there.

    Thanks for an informing post.
    Nancy C

  5. I love the thought of the windmills keeping the cows cool, Cheri. Oh, Nancy, I hope you can visit the Ranching Heritage Center. I love to go there and just amble among the buildings.

  6. Windmills are fascinating. My husband's grandpa was a windmill repairman. It seemed to me that windmills have always been around--after all, they've been in Europe for centuries. I was caught short, though, when I wanted to put an windmill in a book that took place in 1871 Kansas. As you pointed out, they weren't common until the railroads started using them.

  7. Great post and photos. Thanks for the history lesson!

  8. I found your blog so interesting, Caroline. The idea of using windmills to pump water in an arid environment certainly made the west an inhabitable and productive environment. The thing I like the best is that these water pumps are driven by the wind--a free and natural source of power. Maybe we should start using them more these days instead of electric and gas driven types.
    In some old movies where a windmill on an abandoned farm is still working, I found the sound of the windmill kinda creepy. I suppose, if I had grown up with that sound, I would also find it comforting like a lullaby.
    I didn't think about wasps gathering around these windmills. Yikes!
    Great blog. All the best to you, Caroline.

  9. This is fascinating. My grandfather had a windmill on his Kansas ranch. As a child I just liked watching it. ~smiles~


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