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Windmills on the High Plains

Texas Panhandle. High Plains. Golden Plains. Llano Estacdo. Stake Plains –

whatever you call this vast mesa, high and flat and treeless, it is a place, so they say, where you can watch your dog run away for two days. And the wind will drive you mad.

“I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I travelled over them for more than 300 leagues . . . with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . . there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, letter to the King of Spain 1541.

Stephen L. Long first used the term, “The Great American Desert”, on his maps of the region, although the terminology had been used many times by early explorers.

This vast, arid plain has un-watered hearty mixture of grasses, perfect for grazing. The early Comanche depended on land marks and hints of towering cottonwoods which indicated natural springs. Charles Goodnight set his ranch in Palo Duro Canyon and watered his livestock from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, the flowing channel that had cut the deep canyon. In the northern Texas Panhandle, the early sheepherders settled along the banks of the Canadian River. In between were millions of acres of land without water, except on occasion when the rainwater rushed in torrents. The thing that drove early pioneer women mad, coating clean laundry with dust and turning vegetable gardens into wilted chaos, was the thing that opened the Texas Panhandle for settlement.

Harnessing the Wind

Combining the power of wind with the movement of water is not new. The Europeans had utilized windmills in ancient villages for several centuries to drive sawmills, power small factories, and mill flour. The shallow wells back East produced water by drawing a bucket “hand-over-hand”, but that method didn’t work in the Panhandle where the land was hard and the water lay deep below the surface.

B. B. Groom of the Diamond F Ranch in Carson County brought the first well-drilling machine into our area in 1882. American inventors applied the same principles only made it portable. The newly developed windmill was light, transportable by wagon, and ran on energy that was free. The basic design of the windmill now used in the Texas Panhandle has required very little changes in the past one hundred years. By 1885 hundreds of windmills dotted the Llano Estacado to bring precious water from the underlying aquifers.

As the blades turn in the wind, the up and down motion drives a long sucker rod. Inside the well bore a cylinder sealed with a plunger forces the water up the pipe. Each upstroke pulls water into the cylinder.

Before windmills, early homesteaders carted barrels of water across the pasture lands to and from the water sources. With windmills, they could easily pipe water directly into their homes. Water from windmills is not just for livestock.

Harnessing the Sun

Sadly one of our squeaky “mills” was replaced with a more efficient submersible pump and solar-powered panel. Those panels don’t hold as much charm as the old wooden windmills in my mind. Although a submersible is sometimes more money for maintenance than mill rods, in the short term it was cheaper than repairing or buying a new windmill tower. Also, we experience less wind during July thru August which means less water during the hottest, driest months when livestock need it the most. We had to haul water during August of last year. According to water well experts, we have more days of sunshine than we do of wind.

To watch a short reel with a working windmill, go to my Instagram page @natsgrams. Click here and click on REELS.

All photos by N. Bright.

Natalie Cline Bright writes western romance for adults, is a blogger, hobby photographer, speaker and author of the fun, historical westerns for kids. Her cookbook, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN” about chuck wagons, won a first place gold Will Rogers Medallion. Her newest book is END OF TRAIL EATS about the food and history of Cowtowns.  If you enjoy pictures from the Texas Panhandle, check out her Instagram account @natsgrams