Do you know why the trees bendAt the West Texas border?Do you know why they bendSway and twine?The trees bend because of the windAcross that lonesome borderThe trees bend because of the windAlmost all of the time.—Joe Ely, “Because of the Wind”
The streets of Lubbock are remarkably clean. The good people here can certainly take some credit for keeping litter at bay, but so can the wind.
More often than not, the wind blows down the brick lanes of downtown Lubbock with a gentle urgency, like a constant nudge to come along with it. Constant nudging can become annoying pretty quickly, and there is no doubt West Texans sometimes tire of it. The wind also gets ferocious at times, and—rarely—it goes away completely. But for as long as people have walked these plains, the wind has been a constant presence, a minor irritant and a loyal friend. While it is rarely appreciated, the wind is what allowed pioneers to sink roots in the first place.
In West Texas, streams are seasonal, and rivers are few. That’s why the earliest inhabitants chose to be nomads, following the buffalo herds as they sought fresh water and grass in a cycle that sustained life for millennia.
Then ranchers came, quickly followed by farmers. They needed more water to thrive. The two groups often fought over land, but a shared technology kept them both in business: the windmill. The steady wind and tireless efficiency of wind-driven pumps made it possible to suck up enough groundwater not only to sustain human life, but also to provide for millions of Eurasian plants and animals. Every home, every stock pond, and every vegetable garden had a windmill before World War II. They were as common as telephone poles are today. The West was won not with a pistol, but with a windmill.
The American Wind Power Center and Museum (http://windmill.com) in Lubbock honors this history with the world’s largest collection of wind power machines. More than 170 windmills are on display, demonstrating the amazing range of technologies used to capture the wind’s power and redirect it for human benefit. The museum also provides an opportunity to enjoy windmills as folk art, painted sculptures on the prairie.
Admittedly, a windmill museum sounds like it would be a heaping plate of country kitsch. To be honest, a few windmills for sale in the gift shop fit that bill. A windmill-inspired quilt does hang near the reception desk. But once you’re inside the enormous hangar where the curators keep the most rare and beautiful windmills, the facility is more akin to the National Air and Space Museum than to a small-town antique shop. In fact, the Smithsonian tried to poach the first windmills in the museum’s collection, says Glenn Patton, the facility’s development director.
Throughout history, ubiquity has led to diversity. Like wristwatches, windmills could be as simple or as complicated as the customer desired. The blades come in all shapes and sizes, with cast iron gears, joints, and fittings. Landowners chose the size of their windmill based on the depth of the water table or the quantity they wanted to pump. Some windmill blades are fixed, while others change pitch as the wind accelerates for maximum efficiency.
In addition to pulling water from the Ogallala aquifer, these giant fans milled grain, pushed saw blades, spun grinding stones, compressed air, and charged batteries. A prosperous farmer would buy all of the attachments to use wind energy in many ways. Windmills were the KitchenAid mixers of their day.
Ubiquity also leads to adornment, and windmills can be beautiful. Northern models made of wood often have narrow blades that builders painted in bright colors. Patriotic colors were most common, creating the illusion of spinning Fourth of July bunting. Midwesterners made the logical comparison of the fine blades to feathers and painted some models to look like Native American headdresses. While many models had fantails, others used iron weights to balance the blades atop the towers. This allowed ironworkers to create small sculptures, the most common of which were horses, cattle, and squirrels. The museum displays an extensive collection of windmill weights. Those with fantails often advertised the owner’s farm or, more commonly, promoted the company that made the windmill.
Walt McDonald, the Texas poet laureate in 2001 and now-retired professor at Texas Tech University, wrote about a West Texas windmill in a collection of his poems, which appear alongside historic photographs in the book Whatever the Wind Delivers.
We hammer metal vanes and sharpen elmsfor frames, turning thin shimmer into wells.Windmills drawing the splash from the sandfor cattle in this barren land,more than we hoped for, accepting what’s here,briefly, with faith, before we disappear.—”Turning Thin Shimmer into Wells”
More than 700 companies sold tens of thousands of windmills in the United States between 1854 and 1920. Rural electrification eliminated the need for windmills except in the most remote locations. Farmers and ranchers plug their pumps into a wall socket or a diesel generator these days. There are only two companies left that make windmills. One, Aeromotor Windmill Co. (http://www.aermotorwindmill.com), still builds the iconic Model 802 in San Angelo.
As long as cattle graze West Texas, some will need water far from the nearest utility pole, so windmills will always have a home on the range.
While settlers admired and cared for their windmills, environmentalists now consider water pumps more dastardly than the Colt .45. The machines made it possible to tap the Ogallala, a finite resource that goes down a little every year and remains a sensitive political issue.
Nevertheless, there is a certain romantic quality to the hundreds of old windmills slowly wasting away on the prairie. They are being replaced by a new wind machine intended to quench the thirst for the very electricity that made the old water pumps an endangered species.
Wind turbines are as potent a symbol of the future as windmills are icons of the past. Texas produces more electricity from wind than any other state: 8,300 megawatts of capacity from more than 40 projects. That’s enough electricity for 4.1 million homes. The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, stretching over 47,000 acres between Sweetwater and Abilene, is the world’s largest wind farm, producing 735 megawatts. Two new farms under construction in West Texas will soon open and be even larger.
A 165-foot-tall turbine spins at the entrance to the Wind Power Center, providing the museum and the neighborhood with electricity. Standing below the spinning blades, Patton explained how it worked without raising his voice. For something so big, it was remarkably quiet.
Since climbing the mast is out of the question for most tour groups, the museum has another wind turbine disassembled on the ground. Visitors can crawl inside the hollow blades, climb into the generator room, or stick their heads into the nose cone to see the motors that adjust blade pitch. The museum is one of the few places where the public can get up close to the big machines.
In terms of environmental complaints, Patton swears he’s never found a dead bird at the base of his tower, nor has he seen any livestock go insane from watching the blades turn. That’s not to say there might not be some problems elsewhere, but in West Texas there are few naysayers.
“The people up and down the Great Plains are used to using the land for productive purposes,” Patton said. “People in this area welcomed it with open arms. You can still ranch, you can still farm.”
Wind turbines elicit a lot of mixed feelings. Some love the simple, almost alien appearance and the elegant sweep of the blades. For some they represent science fiction come to life. For others, they are a blight on the high-desert plains, diminishing the wildness of the Texas rangelands made famous by ranchers and cowboys.
Only time will tell whether poets will find the same literary inspiration in the giant white pinwheels that they have in the old machines, but in 1890, the pioneers probably didn’t think their windmills were all that beautiful, either. They were simply appliances, and a way of life.