Like giant pinwheels they dotted the horizon throughout rural America. In the Thirties the eight-foot wheels whirled, bringing forth water when none fell from the sky. They appeared on homesteads and in pastures, allowing livestock to graze in places where no ponds existed. The tall, sturdy machines remained part of our farm heritage for another forty years.
The wonderful windmill utilized the power of the wind to pump much-needed water. The wide blades on the circle at the top caught the wind, turning a rotor, which drove a pump rod up and down. The rod forced water from the well hundreds of feet below the ground to the top of a pipe. Sure as the wind, the cycle repeated until water bubbled up, overflowing into a storage tank
The towering windmill on our South Dakota farm huddled next to the fence of the cattle yard. The round storage tank was made of wood, bolted together on expansive metal bands. A board fence butted the edge of the tank on one side and a post which held a swinging metal gate on the other, giving access to half of the open tank to the cattle in their area and half to us on the opposite side near the house.
A five-year-old tends to take life for granted. The sight of that spinning disk and the clicking sound of the rod was the norm for me, simply a machine that produced water on demand, and in my young mind it would keep turning forever. I watched Mom, Dad or my siblings release the rough wooden lever from its holding position in the bend of one of the steel legs to “turn on” the device. I watched when they pulled the handle down, locking it in place, stopping the mill. A full tank of water welcomed the thirsty cows, sure as the Dakota wind.
One hot, muggy day the sky darkened suddenly as an ominous black cloud scudded under the sun. A storm required fast action to protect lives and property. As Dad and my siblings ran outside, Dad called, “Somebody turn off the windmill!” I headed for the tower. The lever extended from the steel support at a 45 degree angle. I was not very tall, but somehow I managed to reach the end of that wooden stick with both hands. With all my might I tried pulling it down, but the wind increased, and the wheel above spun wildly as I hung from the handle, feet dangling. Only a few seconds passed and Dad was there to pull down the bar. I was pretty sure I saw a twinkle flash in those hazel eyes before he ordered me to get to the house.
The metallic clanging of the pump rod was part of farm life, a comforting, reassuring sound, indicating that there would always be water, though someone had to remember to turn on the windmill when the cattle came home to drink and turn it off when the tank was full. Occasionally it ran over and the cattle enjoyed a refreshing mud bath for their cloven hooves. I remember them dipping their heads into the tank and slurping in water until I thought they would surely empty it. Then big brown eyes lifted to me, and with water dripping from their chins, they turned back to the pasture.
The whirling circle with a tail that rotated it to face the wind was a blur in the sunset, a pleasant amenity I knew I could count on. Yes, life was good, but I was not the one that had to climb to the top and oil the rotor. That was my older brother Don’s job. He climbed to the top of that 27-foot tower with the oil can. There were footholds along one leg, like a skimpy ladder. I don’t remember being warned not to climb it, nor do I remember attempting the feat. Once in a while, Dad or Delmer trekked partway up to see if cattle had escaped the pasture fence or check on something far in the distance.
A neighbor recalled how his grandmother’s windmill saved his hide twice when an angry mother cow considered him a threat to her newborn calf. Footwork and quick climbing delivered him to safety, just out of the reach of the cow’s sharp horns and thrashing hard head.
Time passed. The wheel on that windmill turned millions of times. My memories changed to pulling down a small metal lever with a circle on the end, the pump jack. In the blink of an eye, electricity took over the work of the old steel windmill.
The sturdy tower still stands on the home place, but the whirling wheel is no longer needed to bring forth waters from deep in the earth. Times change.
Driving through the countryside, I still see an occasional windmill standing tall and proud, a reminder of days long gone, and, like a cool summer breeze, the memories flow from the nooks and crannies of my mind.