The Old-Fashioned Windmill



The windmill was a common fixture on Great Plains farms, drawing water for cattle and making livestock ownership possible in the relatively dry areas of the West.

The Old-Fashioned Windmill

The Old-Fashioned Windmill

Harnessing the power of wind is by no means a novel concept. Those little old farm windmills, dwarfed by modern wind turbines, have their roots in the Middle East, where they were used as far back as the 800s. From there the idea spread to both Asia and Europe, and then traveled to American shores with the early settlers. The pioneers who journeyed to early California constructed something of the kind to draw water from their hand-dug wells.

But these windmill prototypes had one serious drawback. They could not turn to adjust to a change in wind direction, which limited their usefulness in the American West.

Connecticut inventor Daniel Halladay set to work to solve the problem, and in 1854 he constructed the first model of the practical wind-powered pump seen across Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains. It could both turn and regulate its speed to avoid being destroyed by an extremely high wind. Before long, the windmill was a common fixture on farms, drawing water for cattle and making livestock ownership possible in the relatively dry areas of the West.

How It Works

Of course, windmills underwent several changes over the years, one of the most significant being a switch from wood to steel in construction. But here are the basics of how a wind-powered water pump works:

  1. The wind turns the fan at the top of the windmill.
  2. The fan turns a set of gears called the motor.
  3. The motor pulls a pump rod up and down.
  4. The pump rod operates a piston in a cylinder pump located in the well. This piston contains one or more valves.
  5. As the piston descends, its valve opens to allow the piston to pass through a water column held in check by another, lower valve.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. The cycle repeats over and over again, working the water up the pipe until it overflows into a tank.

Windmills Today

Windmills are not as common as they used to be. The peak of windmill usage on farms across America came in the 1930s. But they’re still out there! Interest in alternative energy sources has also led to a revival of interest in windmills. Some inventive individuals have even built their own wind-powered pumps.

And why not? There’s certainly no shortage of wind in Kansas, or in many other parts of the Great Plains, for that matter. Perhaps it’s an idea to consider. That old-fashioned windmill is, after all, a significant part of our heritage, well worth preserving.

Helpful Resource

How a Windmill Pumps Water
Includes a helpful diagram.