Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
August 3, 2005
The windmill is the supreme icon of the Llano Estacado. The region was not permanently settled until windmills were invented. During the hey-day of the cattle barons travelers navigated the vast prairie using windmills as landmarks. Windmills were named -- sometimes fancifully (High Lonesome) or by location (south pasture #3.) Around a homeplace windmills meant that shade trees and vegetable gardens could be nurtured, spring houses could be erected to preserve meat, milk, and vegetables, and horses and milk cows kept close to the house. The windmills creaking and thumping became the back beat to the rhythm of ranch life, a comforting sound intrinsic to the well-being of the heart and soul of the people dependent on its bringing water to the surface of the land.
I have been lucky to live with a windmill for all of my years of residency in Midland. Its slender spire reaching high has always been the tallest object on both the property on which I was born, and the property where I now live. Just the sight of lifts my heart, for windmills are truly beautiful. Going to the windmill is an almost daily routine, to turn valves to direct the water where needed. Since the tower serves as a perch for the resident birds, I often glance at it for glimpses of communion. Kingbirds and scissortail flycatchers sally forth as they glean grasshoppers, moths, and the rest of the aerial insect community. A windmill is a dinner table for roadrunners eating snakes, gulping a few inches at a time for an hour or more. Mockingbirds use the tower as a stage for daytime posturing and moonlit serenades.
After a late evening early summer thunderstorm, when the outflow winds have stilled, and when the storm has passed so that thunder no longer rumbles but the lightning still flickers, the mockingbirds joyously celebrate. Toads and frogs join their mitote (raucous party racket). Together they sing to bring starlight back to the sky. The fresh earthy scents of the bathed landscape along with the moist coolness of the air and the night sounds pull me from my bed to be rejuvenated by the optimism of the blessings of rain. I join the party, and the graceful windmill tower becomes imbued with wonder of the moment.
A windmill is the weft of the tapestry of the interconnectedness of life and water on the Llano Estacado. As a member of the Midland Naturalists I have been blessed with the permission to visit local ranches. At one ranch two windmills present a story that illuminates the passage of a hundred years. One windmill, located at the inside curve of a bend in a draw, supplied water for the settlers garden in the draw above the bend, and supplied water for a stock tank just beyond the bend. Around the stock tank black locust trees were planted to provide shade for the cattle. The other windmill, just beyond the crest of the rise of the side of the draw provided water for the home place and the working pens for the livestock.
By the time I first visited the place as a child, the house had collapsed with age into a scattered pile of aged lumber, but two huge hackberries that were once yard trees sheltered the scene. Just beyond the hackberries is the hand-dug well (now a widening crater) used before the windmill that replaced it, a den for bobcats. The hackberries were the playground for the bobcat kittens, as well as their haven from coyotes. For years the scene remained constant, until a storm blew down a hackberry. That seemed to stimulate the first new construction in decades at the site for a strong pen made of oilfield pipe soon appeared.
In the draw the stock pond surrounded by locust trees was bypassed, with the water being allowed to trickle along the bottom of the swale. It took years for some of the locusts to slowly die. The windmill aged, and was replaced by an electric pump. The windmill still stands, with some of the blades of the fan missing or bent. The story revealed by the windmills is representative of the history of many of the ranches of the area.
Prior to World War II landowners were dependent on the proceeds from the livestock operations for their livelihood, but as west Texas oilfields were developed, the lucky landowners with oil could pursue other interests. A number of west Texas ranches became secondary income producing operations, and often became leased to those more devoted to animal husbandry. With the consolidation of schools many landowners moved to town and commuted to the ranch. The windmills thumped and creaked on, in a lonelier landscape, without humans constantly hearing their rhythmical interpretations of the pulse of the land.
Many people respond emotionally to windmills. Several of the photographs submitted to the Sibley Nature Centers Photo Contest in the Midland Reporter Telegrams website have windmills in the scene. Most people do not know the brands of windmills, their history, or the specialized language associated with them. Other folks, such as late my father-in-law, Jim Lunney, Midlands longtime National Weather Service Meteorologist In Charge, become knowledgeable windmill devotees.
A lifelong stamp collector, he attended a First day of issue ceremony at the Museum at Texas Tech in 1980 that introduced a series of windmill stamps designed by Ronald Sharp. After that ceremony, the first such ceremony that he had attended, he became fanatic about windmills. Not only did he attend meetings of the Windmill Study Unit of the American Topical Association (Thematic Philately) in San Francisco and Holland, but also he began seeking out windmills wherever he traveled in his retirement.
There are places to go to learn more about windmills. Up in Lubbock, just east of Hiway 27, in Yellowhouse Draw in MacKenzie Park, is the American Wind Power Center in the Tom and Evelyn Linebery Windmill Park. Billie Wolfe, a home economics professor at Texas Tech, inspired other folks to join her to preserve windmills and establish the museum. Several dozen windmills grace the eastern slope of the draw, and inside the barn-like structure of the Center are many more. Over 100 have been restored for display, including some of the earliest examples of water-pumping windmills made in the United States. Other windmill Museums exist in other parts of the United States, too.
For almost 25 years the Sibley Nature Center has had a working windmill with a wooden tower, erected to commemorate the first windmills on the Llano Estacado. Over the years, however, the wood has rotted and the tower has become hazardous to climb. Even though the windmill is in the Junior Master Gardener garden compound behind a locked gate, it has been a temptation for adventurous youths. It has been taken down but another will be erected in the future. If someone has a windmill with a metal tower that is presently unused, we would like to know!
Related Essay: Lubbock Windmill Museum