Farm Horizons, Aug. 2015

Glencoe resident spends free time restoring historic windmills

By Tara Mathews

Many years ago, windmills could be seen towering over nearly every farm site across the Midwest and Great Plains regions of America. Nowadays, windmills are much less common, and of those remaining, only a handful are working, water-pumping windmills.

Bill Gebhardt of Glencoe is one of the few people left who restore those giants back to their former glory.

“I got started with windmills because I wanted one of my own,” Gebhardt noted. “Then, someone heard I was restoring one, and wanted one in his yard.”

He has been restoring old tractors for many years, but got into restoring windmills more recently.

“I started restoring old two-cylinder John Deere tractors,” Gebhardt commented. “Then, I diversified to old gas pumps, pop machines, and now, windmills.”

“He also restores old wheel-drive manure spreaders to working condition,” Richard (Dick) Gebhardt, Bill’s father, noted. “He generally does one every winter.”

Bill sells the restored manure spreaders, usually online.

“He has no problem getting rid of them,” Richard said. “He puts one online for sale, and it goes quick.”

John and Pat Bergseng of Glencoe hired Bill to restore their windmill a couple years ago, and from there, he continued to find windmill projects.

Bergsengs’ windmill was part of an old farm neighboring their property that was demolished a few years ago.

“The windmill is the only big thing left from that farm,” Pat noted. “The silo, barns, and everything else was ‘dozed.”

His latest project is restoring an old windmill to working condition for a nearby farm.

“The couple is restoring the whole farm site to mirror what it looked like in the 1940s,” Bill said.

Along with a local well drilling company, Mathews Drilling and Pump of Glencoe, Bill is going to restore the windmill for irrigation at the farm site.

“Bill found the parts and pump needed to make it function as a water-pumping windmill,” Eric Mathews of Mathews Drilling and Pump noted. “We just have to put the pipe and pump in the ground, and he does the rest.”

Restoration patience

The time it takes to restore a windmill depends on the condition of the windmill and the amount of free time Bill has to work on it, he said.

“People are usually OK with it taking time,” he stated. “And, who else are they going to find to do it? They’re glad to have anyone who can work on them.”

“They’re kind of stuck with him,” Richard joked.

Since windmills are generally kept for nostalgic purposes, most people don’t mind if it takes many months or longer to complete the project, according to Bill.

Some of the parts are tough to find, and can get a bit expensive, he added.

Bill has obtained parts for windmills anywhere from southern Minnesota to Georgia, although some parts are still purchased brand new from the manufacturer.

“I specialize in Aermotor windmills,” he said. “And they are still making parts.”

There are a few farms in Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota that still use windmills for watering cattle, Bill added.

“There is one farm that has had the same Aermotor windmill functioning since 1915,” he stated.

History of windmills

The first windmill was invented in 1854, by a machinist from Connecticut named Daniel Halladay, according to “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains” by the University of Nebraska.

Windmills started to become more popular in the Midwest and Great Plains regions in the 1870s, but were most popular beginning in 1880 and into the 1920s.

The first windmills produced had wheels and vanes made of wood, with cast iron and steel mechanical components.

Steel windmills were produced in the 1870s, but not widely used until the 1890s, although wooden windmills were still used commercially into the 1940s.

In the 1920s, some Great Plains residents began using windmills specially designed to produce electricity for domestic use.

The decline of windmill use began in 1921, following World War II, when agricultural commodities lost value, and farmers could no longer afford to fix the windmills.

In 1935, when the Rural Electrification Act was enabled, many rural people were able to obtain affordable electricity, which led to many farmers converting to electric-powered pumps.

The man who restores windmills

Bill Gebhardt grew up in rural Glencoe on a dairy farm with his father, Richard; mother, Dianne Gebhardt; and sister, Amanda (Gebhardt) Dammann.

“We sold the dairy cattle about five years ago,” Richard noted.

The family now owns about 100 beef cattle, and farms 1,400 acres, primarily corn and beans.

“We also have six quarter horses,” Richard commented.

Bill works on restorations mostly during the winter months, and in his free time during busy farming months.

He graduated from Glencoe High School, and his family’s farm has been his primary occupation ever since.

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