Windmill farms that generate electric power are now a familiar site across west Texas. But before the giant turbines took over, their little cousins ruled the plains. Small windmills pumped water to settlers, pioneers, and ranchers in the Lone Star state. The biggest windmill company, Aermotor, started in Chicago in the 1800s, and now pumps out windmills from its San Angelo headquarters and factory.
Company President Guy Morrow says Aermotor perfected its design about 80 years ago: "In 1933 when they came out with the 702 model windmill, it’s the one that’s withstood the test of time. No one’s ever come up with a better design and no one ever will."
Morrow says there were once a thousand companies making windmills in the US, and of those, Aermotor is the only one left. Before electricity came to rural America, these old-fashioned windmills stood on virtually every farm and ranch, bringing life-sustaining water from underground. University of Texas Professor H.W. Brands writes extensively about American history. He said, “what makes the west the West in the fact there’s not any water. And so if you could get some kind of windmill that was cheap enough for an individual farmer or rancher to pay for, and to drill wells, then you could have some settlement. Until that came along, it was just not going to happen, at least not on any sustainable scale."
The windmill business is a tough one now, with competition from new technologies, like solar power, and from cheaper foreign products in Mexico, China, and Argentina. In its neatly-organized factory and machine shop, the company builds almost every component by hand, from all made-in-the-USA materials. 18 shop worker bend, thread, stamp and weld sheet metal, steel rods, and lengths of iron. They buy a few pre-made parts from companies in Texas and Oklahoma. Much of the work is done on machines that are decades old. "We have a hob back there that cuts our gears that’s a 1949 model. We’ve got a lot of drill presses back there, and some boring machines that are in the 1940s as well. Some of our equipment is really old but it works," Morrow said.
The company has three computer controlled milling machines that do the most complex and difficult metalwork. Like a horizontal lathe, made by the Korean company Daewoo: "We spent 110-thousand dollars on that machine right there. It’s really upped our production probably 25-percent. We run a lot of products through that thing."
With demand in the United States down to about 4000 windmills a year, Aermotor is looking overseas for new markets. Places like Russia, and parts of Africa, where remote areas don’t have enough water or a steady supply of electricity.
Marketing Manager Jesse Zwiebel helped install one on a cattle ranch near Moscow. Since then he’s sold 25 more to Russia’s growing cattle industry. He explains the appeal of the old design: “There’s nothing hardly at all anymore that you can buy that’s gonna last for 50 years and is still work 50 years from now.”
In Nigeria, Chief Mobolaji Saint Matthew-Daniel, who goes by “Chief Bola,” orchestrated the purchase of an Aermotor windmill for the village of Sankara. It provides water for 200 people and 500 cattle. Bola says villagers had been walking long distances to get surface water that wasn’t clean enough to safely drink. "They go to the nearest river, to carry water with their buckets, on their head, to carry water to their home," Bola said.
He says he’s close to a deal with the Nigerian government to purchase 50 more Aermotors. They’ll pump up plentiful underground water for villages, schools, hospitals, and military and police barracks. This low- tech solution doesn’t need electricity, diesel generators, or easy-to-steal solar panels to provide a steady water supply. Bola says the windmill's simplicity is part of the appeal: “the windmill is high up and well installed into the ground so people cannot vandalize it.”
Back in the U.S., nostalgia is pushing up prices for vintage models. Even the ones full of bullet holes, as the windmill’s tails are popular targets for bored hunters. Now an old windmill costs as much as a new one. UT’s Professor Brands is not surprised. He said “The old Aermotors, the old windmills, they make you feel like you’re back in frontier days.”