The setting Aermotor windmill became one of my earliest jobs, as soon as I was tall enough. My aunt would tell me to go out and turn on the windmill, which meant I slipped the bail off the wooden handle and lifted it. I would always watch to see the windmill unfold its vane (tail) and shift the large blades of the wheel directly into the wind, immediately beginning to turn. In a few minutes you could hear the water running into the water trough for the animals. This seemed like a pretty important job for a little kid. When the trough was full she would tell me to shut off the windmill, which was a much harder task. I would have to jump a little to get the handle and then pull with all my strength to pull the handle back down and put the bail on to hold it in place. This would cause the vane to fold up beside the blades and stop them from turning.
According to The Handbook of Texas Online (Texas State Historical Association) the first windmills in America were built in 1854 by Daniel Halladay. They were wooden and had a tower similar to the metal ones made later. Mr. Halladay put on a vane, or tail so that the wheel would turn automatically into the direction of the wind. Many of the earliest windmills were “homemade” using a wagon wheel with slats nailed around it to catch the wind, mounted on half an axle. The axle was fastened securely to a post erected beside the well and a sucker rod was pinned to the edge of the hub and down into the well, pumping water as the wind blew. However, it only worked if the wind came from the direction it was pointing. Still they had water some of the time and this proves the saying that “something is better than nothing”. Not having to put a bucket down the well, get the water and crank the bucket back up the rope must have seemed like a delightful technical leap.
Much of Texas could not be settled until windmills made water available to the homesteader. Before that a creek, spring, or river dictated where a farmer’s or rancher’s home would be. By 1873 the windmill was important for railways, small towns and small farms and Texas became the largest user of windmills in the United States. By 1888 the all-steel windmill that we know today was being produced and gradually the wooden windmills were no longer used. The windmill was the prime supplier of water in rural Texas until 1930, when electric and gasoline pumps came into use.
Between 1950 and 1957 the most widespread drought ever recorded occurred in Coryell County according to the Gatesville Messenger Oct. 9, 1959. The average rainfall per year was 16.2 inches, the second lowest since 1888. My aunt and uncle stayed on their farm during this drought and used the windmill as an easy source of well water. One neighbor had a shallow well that went dry. I remember when the neighbors would come to my aunt and uncles in their pickups, the backs loaded with barrels they would fill with water for cooking and washing.
The Gatesville Messenger of Oct. 9, 1959 stated that the drought cost Texans $3,000,000. At that time 7 cans of Ranch style beans only cost $1.00 and T-Bone steak was 99 cents a pound. The rains did return in 1957, but not before many farmers and ranchers were ruined.
Coryell Museum has an Aermotor windmill plus many other kinds of farm equipment on display in the fenced area behind the museum. For a closer look just come thru the museum and use the outside door near the Log Jail where farming equipment is on display. Many windmills are still in use today in Coryell County, mostly to provide water for stock. Today, a new 27 foot windmill can be bought on the internet for $1,300 plus $400 for shipping. This does not include drilling the well.