Decades-old windmill provides water for livestock, inspiration for photographersWhile many ranchers have installed water pipes in pastures, the Robert Olsen's family continues to use a century-old windmill to keep their animals hydrated.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
With the flip of a handle and Mother Nature’s help, Robert Olsen’s cattle have had plenty of fresh water over the years.
While many ranchers have installed water pipes in pastures, the Olsens continue to use a century-old windmill to keep their animals hydrated.
Robert Olsen and his sons, Lance and Larry, have maintained a Monitor brand vaneless windmill along Betts Road in rural Mitchell for as long as they can remember. The windmill sits on a slight hill in a cattle pasture on Robert Olsen’s land.
The 82-year-old Olsen remembers that when his father purchased the land in 1941, the windmill was there.
“When we first used it, there was no paint left on the boards,” he said. “A lot of boards were gone, but there were enough left it would work.”
A vaneless windmill has six panels of 12 to 14 wooden boards that unfold when they catch the wind. This windmill stands between 25 and 30 feet tall. The wheel is about 10 to 12 feet in diameter.
Olsen retired from farming in 2001, but his sons still use the windmill to water cattle in the pasture. They also use two other Aermotor brand steel-bladed windmills — a typical kind depicted in nostalgic pictures or paintings.
It’s the Monitor vaneless windmill, though, that has captured the popular imagination. In fact, it’s so popular with photographers that most people in the Mitchell area probably recognize it.
Lance Olsen was the first to discover the windmill’s celebrity. He was at Pizza Ranch in Mitchell and saw a large picture on the wall and said, “Hey, that’s my dad’s windmill.”
Since then, he’s seen pictures of it in various places, including in an October issue of The Daily Republic. The Mitchell Camera Club’s Jim Kost photographed the windmill and received awards for his pictures. Robert Olsen chuckled and pointed to his refrigerator during a recent interview with The Daily Republic.
“I keep that hanging up,” he said, pointing to the photos published in the newspaper.
He’s seen many people stop to take photos of the windmill and has wondered why no one has ever stopped to ask about it. He figured the photographers just thought the windmill was interesting on its own.
“When we first got the land and used it, I guess there was probably enough windmills it was no big deal,” Olsen said. “As time went on and on, there were less of them left.”
He added that while there may be similar windmills elsewhere in the area, many are not in use.
As more farmers had access to rural water, fewer needed windmills to pump water in pastures, Olsen said. But the windmills on Olsen’s land worked, so he figured they never needed replacing.
Once a year, Lance Olsen crawls to the top of the Monitor windmill to oil and grease the gears. Once every few years, the Olsens remove the panels and replace worn or broken boards.
Robert Olsen did this about two years ago, with the help of Dan Benjamin, who owns and operates Windmills R Us in Freeman.
Benjamin started working with the Olsens about six years ago. He’s been restoring windmills since 1992 and was the first who was able to give them any history on the windmill.
“The Monitor brand was considered in the top five for total windmill sales,” Benjamin said.
The A.S. Baker Company in Evansville, Wis., patented the Monitor windmills in 1918, but the design had been used since the late 1800s.
While other companies used the same type of design for the vaneless windmill, Monitor’s sales continued to be strong through about 1960, Benjamin said. The Monitor brand is still around, but now it’s associated with hand pumps and water pumps.
Benjamin said two operational features make vaneless windmills unique.
Vaneless windmills use direct strokes, meaning every time the wheel turns one rotation, the cylinder in the well also runs one cycle, Benjamin said.
“Also, the way it governs itself, by folding the wheel, is unique,” he said. “The blades fold into a cup, which is how it protects itself against high winds.”
If the winds are too high, the windmill is able to shut itself down and prevents any damage to the blades.
Aermotor windmills became more popular as farmers needed more water. The Aermotor models could reach deeper in the ground and were gear-reduced, meaning the wheel had to turn four times for the well to complete one cycle.
This gave the windmill “greater lifting power and smoother pumping action,” according to the Aermotor website. The company still produces windmills and has been in business since 1888.
Benjamin said the Olsens are not the only ones in the area who use windmills to pump water. He services windmills near White Lake, Plankinton, Lake Andes, Wagner and Wessington Springs.
Many others have windmills made as decorative or nostalgic pieces, he said.
“It’s kind of a historic thing,” Robert Olsen said. “As long as it’ll work, we’ll use it.”
Robert Olsen stands in front of the century-old windmill that has been on his rural Mitchell land since his father bought it in 1941. Olsen is retired, but his two sons still use the windmill to water their cattle despite many ranchers’ switch to more modern methods.