Windmills dot the southwest landscape. Their massive structure stands sentinel on the plains where I grew up. Dad and Granddad often spent hours fixing them, but I really had no idea of their value. How important are windmills to ranchers anyway?
My brother and I own a ranch in southeastern Colorado, and we have four windmills on the ranch. Three are operative, but last week in a furious wind storm, our main windmill in our summer pasture broke—the fan broke off and was hanging on the platform by the blades. It felt ominous for sure. With our raging drought, this windmill is a vital water source for part of the herd of cattle on the ranch.
Most windmills used in the Great Plains were of self-governing design. This means that they automatically turned to face changing wind directions and automatically controlled their own speeds of operation to avoid destruction from centrifugal force during high winds.
I’ve seen this happen–facing one direction, then another; however, the wind storm that broke this windmill must have been a mighty one then!
Within a couple days, the windmill fixit man came from Folsom, New Mexico, and I had the treat of my life. My brother and I witnessed the crew of three fix the windmill.
We stood to the side, wrapped up in our coats and hoodies with a cold breeze cooling the February morning. Every phase of the work fascinated me. I grabbed my iPhone and captured as many pictures as I could.
They had a boom on their truck to lift the broken fan off of the tower. This magical operation took three men: one agile small guy up on the platform standing below the fan who hooked a chain around the fan, two men on the ground with one running the boom and the other ready to handle the fan as it came down.
Here’s a diagram of the parts of a windmill:
Then the work began. The young man on top took off the broken piece that the fan attached to, dropped it down unceremoniously, and they hoisted a new one up to him. The two men on the ground fixed any break to the fan, using lots of oil and elbow grease. After the two below fixed the fan, they sent it up the tower with the boom, and attached it to the new piece.
Then they pulled out the sucker rod and the pipe it goes through. They measured the depth of the water, and the results were really sad to us. We’ve experienced a horrible drought the last couple years. We’ve received sufficient water to grow grass, but not enough to fill reservoirs and not enough deep water for the aquifer to fill the wells. A couple years ago, this well measure 17 feet deep; now it is 8.5!
My brother had witnessed windmill repair as a youngster, so this was not new to him. I stepped in closer to see the work. While they had the working parts apart, the young man offered to show me the workings of the guts of the mill and how a windmill works—I had no ideas.
We also wanted to see how many gallons the well pumped a minute, but there’s a strange quirk with this well—it’s not straight down, so the pump they tried to put down the pipe wouldn’t go.
I’ve always had an unusual attraction to windmills and taken lots of pictures. To me, a windmill silhouetted in a sunset makes a beautiful, peaceful photograph. For us on the plains and high desert, we depend on the successful operation of a windmill. We have no rivers or live water on our ranch—a windmill provides that much needed water for the livestock. My respect for these giant wonders has grown in leaps and bounds and the maintenance of them.
Have you ever been attracted to photograph a windmill? Have you ever wonder about how they work?
Here’s how a windmill works:
- The wind turns the fan at the top of the windmill.
- The fan turns a set of gears called the motor.
- The motor pulls a pump rod up and down.
- The pump rod operates a piston in a cylinder pump located in the well. This piston contains one o more valves.
- As the piston descends, its valve opens to allow the piston to pass through a water column held in check by another, lower valve.
- When the piston ascends again, the piston valve closes to prevent the water from flowing backward as the piston pulls the column up the pipe.
- At the same time, the lower valve opens to allow water to enter the pump and fill the vacuum created by the upward motion of the piston. This is the new water column.
- The cycle repeats over and over again, working the water up the pipe until it overflows into a tank. https://homesteadontherange.com/2013/08/27/the-old-fashioned-windmill/
If you’d like a visual of how a windmill works, go to https://web.archive.org/web/20121028095740/http://www.aermotorwindmill.com/how-a-windmill-works.html
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