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Windmills

Nebraska’s homemade windmills, according to historian Walter Prescott Webb, illustrate “one of the most interesting developments of the windmill that I know of anywhere.” Webb’s discussion of significant prairie inventions, including the windmill, appeared in Nebraska History in December 1953.



“The story begins with the good wet years that made the Plains so attractive in the 1880s. In these wet years the farmers made their great invasion of the semiarid country to the west of Lincoln. They took up homesteads along the Platte, on both sides, and in the other valleys. But the lean, dry years followed the fat, wet ones, and from 1886 far into the nineties, the settlers were driven back to the green country. . . .



“But not all retreated. Some held their ground either because they were unable to move or because they had found a way to live with the country. These windmills of Nebraska were not those factory-made rosettes which you still see whirling so lightly on your western horizon. Few of those people had money enough to buy a windmill. Just as the people had to learn to make fences without rails, so they had to learn to make windmills without steel and without money. And there sprang up from Lincoln to the western edge of Nebraska and on into Colorado on both sides of the Platte Valley the greatest aggregation of homemade windmills known in all history.”



Erwin Hinckley Barbour, geologist and University of Nebraska professor, became interested in homemade windmills. In the summer of 1897 he employed three university students to travel from Lincoln to Denver south of the Platte and then return north of the river. They studied not only homemade windmills but records of their makers and owners. Barbour found that the windmills fell into about seven main classifications with variations within each class. He estimated that construction costs should not exceed ten dollars and in most instances would be less. “Poles and strong limbs (for the tower) answer the purpose as well as new lumber, old dry-goods boxes furnish materials suitable for fans, old wire, nails, and bolts are common on every farm.” Barbour concluded that the homemade windmills made the “difference in time of drought between the family who was able to hold on and the one that had to give up.”


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