Sunday, January 21, 2018

So What About the Windmill?

“After a day’s work, as I rested on the porch steps in the fading daylight, I could hear the sucker rods of the old wooden windmill lifting water.” (Etchings on the Heart by Susan A. Holland in New mexico Magazine, February 2018)

Rancho Viejo at Santa Fe, where Marsha and I now live, is divided into three Home Owner Associations: Entrada, South Community (“Windmill Ridge”), and North Community (“The Village”).  Even though our home is in North Rancho Viejo the south Community’s windmill is clearly visible to us every day as we walk the desert trails – as a result the first question that we had when we moved here in September 2017 was, “so what about the windmill?”    


In his self-published book “The Memoirs of Larry Meyer” one of the original owners of Rancho Viejo recalls their major problem in developing the land, “First of all there was no water on the property – only several windmills – so if we were going to develop it, we had to find water.” 

Unbeknownst to this city-born-and-raised/suburban adult northeasterner, there were apparently parts of the United States that did not have the luxury of municipally supplied water.  Hence the now landmark symbol of and eponymous name source for our neighboring HOA community to the south.

Actually a form of water pump, windmills in the southwest were once a necessary way of supplying “Adam’s ale” for cattle and crop irrigation, but were largely abandoned when electric and gasoline motors came on the scene.  “Early documents refer to use of windmills…in Persia in 644 A.D.” were they were used to “grind grain” according to the book “Windmills and Dreams”.  They appeared in Europe in the 12th century.

On August 29, 1854, Daniel Halladay a machinist, inventor, and businessman from Connecticut patented the first commercially viable windmill – “Halladay’s Self-Governing Windmill” – after having been approached to work on the design by Ellington, Connecticut businessman, John Burnham. Burnham was in the pump business and realized that with a reliable way to bring ground water to the surface he could significantly increase business.  “Halladay’s Self-Governing Windmill” automatically turned to face the prevailing wind direction, and maintained a uniform speed by changing the pitch of the sails – with no human oversight.  The device would stand still during a storm by turning the edges of its sail wings to face into the wind, and then gradually redeploy them to resume operation when the storm ended.  It successfully drew water from as deep and twenty-five feet and moved it more than 100 feet into a reservoir.   The windmill itself sold for $50.00, with pumps and pipes costing an additional $25.00.  Halladay later moved his business to be closer to his western customer, forming the U.S. Wind Engine and Pipe Company of Batavia, Illinois.

Another highly successful brand of water pumping windmills for the southwest was the “Eclipse” produced by Morse and Company and invented by Leonard Wheeler, a Presbyterian minister who was working among the Ojibwe Indians on the south shore of Lake Superior.  He perfected the device in the privacy of his missionary homestead using it to draw water for his house for nearly two decades.  In 1866 ill health forced him to return to his hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin and seek a different career.  A cousin of his, Samuel Shipman, convinced him to patent the machine (US Patent No, 68674).  The “Eclipse” used a secondary vane, which shifted angles, and was held in position by weights through a series of pulleys to keep the windmill pointed at the optimum angle at all times.  The galvanized steel tower stood thirty feet tall with a six foot in diameter steel wheel.  The original Montgomery Ward Company (1872 – 2001) – a dry goods mail-order business out of Chicago Illinois distributed the machine.

Wheeler’s windmill was initially manufactured by L.H. Wheeler and Sons and was exhibited at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World's Fair in the United States, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania along with Halladay’s Self-Governing Windmill, and two other companies.  Charles Morse later purchased an interest in the company and merged it with Fairbanks Company to form Fairbanks, Morse & Co.  Morse asserted the reasons for the machine’s success as:

1.     “windmills could be shipped in pieces and yet assembled and erected with simple tools by people of ordinary ability;

2.     their parts were interchangeable, and thus repair were simple;

3.     windmills were made from durable materials; proper wood painted for protection and steel which had been protected by galvanizing;

4.     a minimum amount of material was used, cost of raw materials, transportation, and erection was kept at an economical level;

5.     lubrication problems were solved after the introduction of the self-principle early in this century; and;

6.     finally, and perhaps most importantly, the American were self-governing.”

These windmills allowed ranchers in New Mexico to graze their cattle over many square miles of the arid high desert land.  In the Santa Fe area cattle farms such as the old Lamy/Simpson Ranch and others used the technology – dotting the landscape with the tall, gawky, feathered water pumps.  Several of these machines survive today: to the west of Casa del Oro; near the old Pueblo Indian sites on the Simpson property; near Lamy; in the vicinity of St. Vincent Hospital; close to the Wheelwright Museum; going north on I-25 to the southwest; visible in the distance on the drive along The Turquoise Trail; behind the Guadalupe Credit Union on Mimbres lane off of Rodeo Road; and on the grounds of the San Marcos Seed Store and Café on Route 14; and one, believed to be an Eclipse, that is still operating in Eldorado just outside the second entrance and across U.S. Highway 285 from Avenida Vista Grande.

In a 1997 interview for the book “Windmills and Dreams – A History of the Eldorado Community and Neighboring Areas” Robert Dobyn recalled his summers visiting at the Lamy Ranch on the property that is now Eldorado.

“Water was always a problem here….you know where they have the Old Ranch Road and the art barns of U.S. 285, right behind the dump – there are two wells back there…We used to have windmills on that.  When you had windmills and you were running cattle, back in ’72, you were allotted commercial water rights, and that’s where AMREP [the initial Eldorado developer] got their water.  They consolidated all the windmills, and obviously they weren’t going to use the windmills…

 “Where my parents lived in downtown Santa Fe, we had a windmill.  It’s still [1997] there.  Windmills were real common.  There’s a ton of them.  This one is on Old Santa Fe Trail by Kaune’s [Market], where I was raised…The windmill operates on the suction principle.  Basically it’s a piece of pipe with what you call “leathers”, and the leathers swell and suction around the pipe.  The leathers wear out and you have to replace them.  That means you have to pull the pipes out, and that a lot of work, and we’d have to do that (on the ranch).  That’s how the cattle depended on water.  We’d build natural holding tanks in the arroyos (as well).”

The Rancho Viejo windmill is located at the corner of Saddleback Mesa and Mineral Hill, and was manufactured by the Aeromotor Windmill Company of Chicago, Illinois.  The company is still in business, now located in San Angelo, Texas. 

The Aeromotor was first developed in 1883 by a mechanical and civil engineer named Thomas O. Perry who (according to the company’s website) “had previously worked for U.S. Wind Engine Company, of Batavia, Illinois, and had conducted over 5,000 scientific tests on 61 different experimental wind wheels. These tests had been meticulously conducted indoors under controlled conditions, by mounting 5 ft. diameter steel test wheels on a steam driven arm, which provided constant artificial wind. His best test wheel was 87% more efficient than the common wood wheels in use at the time.” The U. S. Wind Engine Company however showed no interest in utilizing Perry’s discoveries. But LaVerne Noyes, a Chicago manufacturer of dictionary stands and farm equipment, recognized the potential and encouraged Perry to develop this “truly scientific steel windmill.”

Derisively called the “mathematical windmill” by its competitors Aeromotor sold only twenty-four windmills in 1888, its first year.  In 1892 they sold 20,000 of the machines, and “Aermotor was on its way to becoming the world’s dominant windmill.”

Because in most cases these devices shipped to rural locations in the southwest where they were assembled and put into operation by their owners, the manufacturers do not have detailed records of their locations.  Thus, I have not been able to find any other information about the Windmill Ridge landmark.

I believe it can be fairly said that the self-governing windmill was a major factor in how the west was won.  Although the mill at Rancho Viejo no longer pumps water – the sound of the sucker rod’s up-and-down motion and rotating metal blades can still be heard, reminding us of the role these devices played in Rancho Viejo’s, and New Mexico’s, history.

Photos by Marsha

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