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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Water, Windmills and Wells by Linda Broday

Water...nature's life-force. Everyone must have water. But today, a great many people are living in areas of severe drought.

Of all the things the frontier settlers needed in order to survive, the single most crucial thing was water. Without water, they couldn’t subsist, grow crops or quench their livestock’s thirst not to mention their own. Yet when arriving settlers found all the land around lakes, rivers, and streams was already taken, they were forced to move onto places without this valuable commodity.

In the 1800’s a good water source played an important role in deciding what land to buy and where to create towns. That’s why towns were settled close to a river, stream, or lake. Water had to be accessible. Without it, towns would die as people moved on, seeking that life-sustaining resource.

Terrible wars were often fought as greedy men tried to control the water. Men died in the attempt to keep water flowing to their land.

Lots of novels have been written and movies made about fights over water rights.

But it was very difficult sometimes for a farmer or rancher to obtain a good supply of water. If they didn’t have a river, stream, or lake nearby (which was hard to come by in the desert) they had to dig deep into the earth, trying to tap into an underground stream. If they were lucky enough to find water just beneath the surface, they quickly lined the hole to keep the sides from caving in. They had themselves a well. They built a top over it to protect it and lowered a bucket down an open hole in the middle and hauled up water that way.

The only thing was that they had to do that every time they needed water. It could be a pain, especially for the poor frontier woman who had to have water for cooking, washing dishes and clothes and taking baths. A bucket at a time could get very tedious.

Almost every house had rain barrels in which to catch every precious drop of moisture that fell from the sky. Some settlers built cisterns (usually out of cement and most of time they were underground) to catch rain from a run-off. Water was and is so vital.

Sometimes the settler had to drill for water if there was no other way. He drilled pipe into the ground and prayed to strike water. Men with peach tree limbs known as “water witches” were called on to find the most likely place to drill. Those men with their peach tree limbs became the first geologists. Heaven forbid they used such a primitive method! It often failed.

Once the driller did locate water, it was only half the battle. They had to coax the water to the top. In the early years, it involved pumping it to the surface with a friction pump and lots of arm strength.

In 1854, Daniel Halliday invented the self-regulating farm wind pump and that changed the whole perspective of getting accessible water through windmill technology.

Incessant winds on the plains made it easy to get power to the mill blades. Wind power kept the blades turning which in turn pumped water to the top through a long pipe. Water emptied into a storage tank on the surface. Simple technology but really efficient. Many times the windmills dwarfed the simple sod houses. But once it was set up there was much rejoicing, especially by the farmer’s or rancher's wife I’m sure. All the settlers had to do was dip water from the tank. No more drawing it up by rope and bucket or pumping until your arm wore to a frazzle.

Ranchers hired men who did nothing except make sure the windmills kept working. Here in the Texas Panhandle, ranchers still have windmills and continue to employ these men.

Not only were windmills used on a farm or ranch, they were very crucial to the railroads. With a steam engine's need to take on water every four or five miles, they could place windmills wherever they needed them.

I don’t know about you, but I love windmills. I love the sound of the wind whistling through the blades and the creak of the pipe as it goes up and down. Such a beautiful sound. Fellow lovers of the technology created a wonderful windmill museum in Lubbock, Texas devoted solely to these marvels. My favorite exhibit is the one of recorded sounds of a windmill. I can stand there for hours, listening, dreaming. To me, it's the music of the earth's heartbeat.

I don't even have to close my eyes to remember the times my mama and daddy took us kids fishing. We'd stop at an old windmill outside of town and dig for worms around the storage tank. We'd always get more than enough. Those were special times. So simple yet they formed the fabric of my soul.

Windmills are vanishing.

 I’m sad that more and more they’re going by the wayside. My heart breaks to see windmills sitting idle in the pastures where houses once stood, remnants of someone’s hopes and dreams. Water, nature’s life-giving force.

Do you have windmill memories stored inside you?


  1. Linda,
    Even with water nearby, I remember the windmill on my great grandparents property back in Illinois. Lots of 'creeks' in the area and the Mississippi was not that far away. Still as you say, the sound of the wheel turning is such a great memory, due to its connection of the memories of those relatives. I'm sure of that. Doris

    1. Hi Doris! I'm glad you can relate to this blog. More and more they're becoming a thing of the past and that breaks my heart. Windmills are an iconic symbol of the old West and up into the 1900s. I love them and I always smile when I see one dotting the Texas landscape. Hold on to those memories.

  2. Linda,

    I grew up on a ranch in northeastern Colorado, and I remember helping my dad 'pull' our wells when something had to be fixed. In fact, I still have his original 'pipe dog'. A pipe dog is an apparatus that makes the raising and lowering of pipe easier. Since I couldn't upload an image of my pipe dog, here is a link to an image I found on a blog:

    We were fortunate in that our land had ponds, natural springs, and bordered the South Plate River, so we didn't have to deal with our own windmills, but we often helped others with theirs.

    In contrast, I've lived in the southeastern corner of Colorado for the past 24 years, and the flat, windy prairie here is ideal for pumping water via windmills. For about the first third of those 24 years, my husband was still part of his family's farming and ranching operation. Making the 'run' to check all the windmills every couple of days is something I miss.

    1. Hi Kaye. Thank you for your comment. It seems I've sparked a memory for you also. I hear in your tone how much you miss those years. There isn't a more soothing sound than those of windmills. Sure makes some good sleeping. Thanks for posting the link to that pipe dog. I appreciate that! Have a great day.

  3. Linda--I love this post about windmills. My mom and dad were raised in the dustbowl of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. There had to have been a lot of fond windmill memories for Mom, because when she took up painting, she always took pictures of windmills to paint "later on" and several of her paintings have windmills in them. Thanks for a wonderful post--Sorry I'm late getting here.