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The Windmill Man

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Mike Moeller works on the tail portion of an Aermotor windmill.
Photo:Michael Zimny

Mike Moeller has a unique skill set. Those iconic Aermotor windmills that populate the Plains, often in dilapidated, unworking condition? He can fix them. He can take them apart, repair broken parts or fabricate new ones, and make them spin again.

For centuries, wind has been used to power various operations. In Europe, wind was historically harnessed by grain mills. That tradition continued in America, though the need for water is what drove the proliferation of windmills across the American prairie.

According to T. Lindsay Baker's "A Field Guide to American Windmills," the first commercially successful American windmill was invented by Daniel Halladay of Marlboro, Vermont in 1854.

In 1863, the Halladay Wind Mill Company was bought out and manufacturing operations were moved to Batavia, Illinois. The market was in the Midwest, where fewer farms had access to water. Railroads, which used wind power to pump water for their steam locomotives, were another major customer.

The early commercial windmills were made with wooden blades, at first featuring larger, paddle-shaped blades, but designs quickly trended toward more numerous, thinner, rim-fixed blades. (Some farmers constructed their own windmills by hand, often utilizing designs much different than those commercially available.)

The manufacture of all-metal mills began in the 1870's and accelerated in tandem with the American steel industry toward the end of the century.

At the turn of the century, there were dozens of major windmill manufacturers in operation, mostly in the Midwest, making machines that many ordinary farmers could afford. Companies invested in beautifully drawn advertisements and traveling salesmen. Others sold their wares through mail order catalogues.

The Aermotor, introduced in 1888, was designed by Thomas Perry, who had experimented extensively with different models while working for the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company, the same concern that bought out Daniel Halladay. Aermotor billed its wind machines as more efficient and buyers apparently agreed. The company dominated the industry by the 1890s, and its logo is still recognizable on wind vanes of old mills, working or not, around South Dakota and beyond.

When Mike Moeller started working for Dakota Windmill, based in Hurley, most farm communities had electricity. Most people no longer needed wind power to pump water.

There are areas of the country, like in Texas and the Nebraska Sandhills, where ranchers are still drilling new wells and installing wind-powered pumps. Dakota Windmill sells components and services to the well drillers who do this work.

In South Dakota, in the nineties, says Moeller, "People were selling their windmills left and right... cheap too. They couldn't give them away sometimes."

"At that time, we'd go and take these down and sell them in Nebraska or Texas."

When they couldn't find working parts they needed, they'd rebuild broken parts or machine new ones.

In recent years, some people began to rediscover the aesthetic appeal of a working (spinning) windmill, even if it doesn't power anything. Now Moeller spends some of his summers outside the shop, repairing or installing Aermotor windmills in the same areas where he used to buy them for scrap.

Your SDPB Outdoors Correspondent stopped by as Moeller installed an Aermotor windmill with a 1927 gearbox at a farm near Parker. "These farms couldn't have survived on the prairie, without windmills," says Moeller. They supplied precious water where there otherwise would have been none. No longer needed for their original purpose, they have become totemic, decaying symbols of the rural past.

Here and there, though, the reverse happens. An Aermotor — with a shiny coat of red paint on the gear box, and that simple but ubiquitous logo on the tail — appears on the prairie, spinning like it was 1927. When that happens Mike Moeller might have been in town.