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Blowing in the Wind

Starting Point: San Angelo

By Eileen Mattei

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 8.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 4.5 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.5 hours /
  • Houston - 6.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4 hours /
  • Lubbock - 3.25 hours

A whirlwind tour of windmills, from San Angelo north to the Panhandle.

The Wind Power Trail map tempted me to take a 400-mile journey across the Plains and Panhandle to seek out old-fashioned windmills and newfangled wind farms. Windmills pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer for livestock, crops and settlers were key to winning the West. Wind turbines — pumping power into the electric grid — define the next generation of wind power. With my husband, Guy, I chased one of Texas’ most renewable resources from San Angelo to Spearman, looking for answers blowing in the wind.

Day One

On San Angelo’s south side, windmills face into the afternoon breeze, spinning with a rhythmic creak in front of Aermotor Windmill Company, the largest windmill maker in the U.S. The 116-year-old business builds about 200 windmills annually under the eye of owner and retired rancher Kees Verheul. “When this place came up for sale in 1998, it was love at first sight,” he says. His affection shows in the informal Windmills 101 tour he gives visitors to the small factory.

The amount of water pumped depends on the depth of the well, the size of the mill and the wind speed, Kees explains. The spinning of the windmill’s curved blades transfers, via a gear box, into the up-and-down stroke of a rod, which lifts water to the surface. Daniel Halladay’s 1854 patent for the self-governing windmill led to a windmill boom, thanks to the mechanism that disconnected the blades when wind speeds reached 30 to 35 mph and prevented windmills from spinning to their destruction. By the late 1800s, 700 companies were building windmills.

Early sectional-wheel windmills opened and shut like an umbrella, letting high winds pass through the wheel’s center, Verheul says. Today’s cupped metal wheels have at least one rear tail that activates a lever to allow the machine to turn itself off in strong wind.

“Memories of the old home-place windmill bring fans from all over the country and from Holland,” Verheul admits. Yet thousands of windmills, including some centenarians, are still pumping water and needing Aermotor parts.

Up Highway 87, five miles south of Big Spring, we spot the first wind farm. Looking like giant pinwheels planted on ridges, solid white towers each balance three long blades that prick the sky. After chicken-fried ribeye at Cowboy’s Steakhouse, we swing past Comanche Trail Park to see the big spring that attracted Indians and pioneers.

Day 2

The trail leads us to Moss Lake Road, where roadside viewing of the wind farm is free, if not close-up. The 50 Vesta turbines have been connected to the power grid for about eight years, generating enough electricity to power a town of 25,000, according to windpower scout Kathy Lusk of Big Spring, who joins us. “Texas is now the largest wind energy producer in the U.S. I would like to see enough of them that we could get away from depending on other countries and finite sources of fuel.”

Lusk explains that most turbines stand around 300 feet high with blades between 100 and 150 feet long. Atop each tower, a motor-home-size nacelle (nuh-cell) holds the guts of the wind turbine: instruments to read wind speed and control the direction that the 7-ton blades face. When the wind reaches six to eight miles an hour, the blades engage and produce electricity. Over 50 mph, the blades feather, disconnecting like their smaller cousins.

Wind farm developers lease sites from landowners and build a power substation and access roads. Lusk remembers an early wind investor (from New York) listening to a rancher explaining they would need a cattle guard at one entrance and another one down the road. “How much do you pay cattle guards?” the investor asked.

With the Texas State Travel Guide handy, I read nutshell community bios as we cruise north to Lubbock and the American Windpower Center. Cover-ing 28 acres and the entire history of American windmills, this collection of 144 windmills has been called “windmill heaven,” and rightly so. Restored to their original colors, the windmills range from giant railroad Eclipse and Southern Cross models with 25-foot diameter wheels to an 1868 Halladay windmill and homemade Battleaxes, which faced into the prevailing wind, pumping enough water for 100 cows. Windmills have sawn wood, ground grain and pumped a stripper well (a nearly depleted oil or gas well).

“If you didn’t have a windmill in West Texas, you were just passing through,” museum director Coy Harris says as he guides us to dozens of full-size windmills, some set at eye level to provide intimate views of usually elevated wheels and mechanisms.

The museum’s Aermotor collection includes every model since 1890. “These were the Cadillacs of windmills,” Harris says. The windmill repair camp exhibit reveals more about the historic early days, while an early wind turbine foreshadows the next age of wind power. In the 1920s Zenith began selling a small $15 wind turbine on a short tower so rural homes could generate enough electricity to listen to Zenith radios.

Outside, a two-headed windmill resembling an owl keeps company with vintage mills and the center’s Vesta turbine. Inside the turbine’s tower, Coy shows us the system that controls the pitch of the blades and the output. Power not used by the center is distributed by the electric grid.

After lunching on a West Texan Cuban sandwich — pork, ham, Swiss cheese and chipotle mayo — at Trebs, we ease out of town, past the Buddy Holly Plaza, stopping to see a different version of windpower — the Silent Wings Museum and its World War II gliders: fragile, motorless aircraft, weighted down with a jeep or a platoon of soldiers, that landed behind enemy lines.

In Plainview, 42 miles later, a display at the Museum of the Llano Estacado describes in detail how the Ogallala Aquifer was formed. In contrast, the water well drilling exhibit is short on interpretive signs, forcing the mechanically challenged to wonder exactly how everything worked.

Day 3

Driving in light rain to Canyon, we spot dozens of windmills silhouetted against the eastern sky. Canyon’s Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, among its many treasures, features a Windmills in the West exhibit. Who can resist the offer to stretch tall and push the blades of a Dandy windmill and be rewarded with the creak and spin of the metal? Wandering among the windmills, I discover a tendency to greet and pet the cutest ones. We drag ourselves away from the Oil Patch exhibits to meet Ken Starcher, who heads West Texas A&M’s Alternative Energy Institute.

Starcher sends Wind Power Trail riders to the museum first, then on to look at the Wind Test Center northeast of campus, where he shows us a backyard-size Bergey wind turbine and solar panels that supply electricity to the building. “You want the tower as high as possible to get better winds above and away from wind-blocking trees.” At Starcher’s scrapyard of windmill and turbine blades, we stroke a fiberglass blade curved like a wing as he explains, “The skinny blade tip lets it slice through the air at speeds up to 130 mph.”

Over a chicken-fried steak lunch at the Ranch House, where the tablecloths are imprinted with John Deere tractors, Starcher points out that wind farms now return their investment in eight years, and the cost of making wind power is dropping.

Filled with facts and food, Guy and I detour to view an example of large-scale, long-term wind- and water-power at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, where those two elements have carved a natural masterpiece. Skirting Amarillo, we head northeast to Panhandle’s Carson County Square House Museum, which boasts a restored Eclipse windmill next to a dugout replica, set half below ground and furnished with a telephone and a cow chip storage box. One mile east of Panhandle on Highway 60, we spot the White Deer Wind Farm and follow the map to the first wind farm in Texas: 80 Mitsubishi turbines producing enough power for 30,000 homes. We mosey down the road, getting close enough to pull over in a giant windmill’s shadow and hear the soft swish of the blades.

Heading northwest 80 miles to Spearman, we cross country that has more pump jacks per acre than cattle. This trip makes me think that 21st century historical markers need to adopt Burma Shave sign expediency: history factoids spread over five signs readable at 60 mph.

Coming into Spearman we pass two windmills near the John Deere dealership and arrive at the J.B. Buchanan Windmill Park. By now it feels like we are visiting friends, finding familiar names — Challenge, Western, Clipper — recognizing a bicycle-rim windmill, and hearing the creak of wheels catching the wind.

Next to the park, the Nursanickel Motel has adopted an Easy windmill, so we check into a room with a cool view of the windmills. Owner Sunita Bahakta said she and her family adopted the windmill because “it’s something that looks nice, and it helps the county.” Grain elevators dominate the town, but we count 18 windmills sitting in front of banks and shops.

Next, we find our way to Gruver, with time for a quick look at some of the largest turbines. Back in Spearman, we chow down on a hefty rib plate at the Hungry Cowboy restaurant (which has its own miniature windmill).

At dusk at the Dairy Queen, we’re leaning on the car, licking cones, waving back at an older man in a cowboy hat, listening to young guys speaking Spanish. Across the road at the park, the windmills spin gracefully, turning and chatting among themselves. I want to take one home.

For more information, visit <www.windpowertrail.com>.

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