The Prairie Mayflower- Mays Wind-Mill

By Terry Hogan

I remember a few of them still around and workable when I was a kid. My Grandpa and Grandma Williamson had one outside their farmhouse. The windmill was only a poor shadow of its former self, spinning and turning in the breeze. But like a modern-day bureaucrat, it accomplished no real work. It had long been disconnected from the handpump at the well. Even so, these windmills were once non-commercial signs, welcoming the traveler to a farm. A small clump of trees and a windmill- a small island in the prairie. Like the golden arches, it promised a place to stop and refresh the weary traveler. The traveler could be sure of fresh, cold water, delivered without his own effort.

I never noticed the name of the windmill, assuming that it had one on a nameplate to be noticed. But there is a good chance that it was of local origin, being a product of the May Brother’s. S. W. May, according to local history, invented the "wind-mill" in the summer of 1871. S. W. May was the son of H. H. May who invented, again according to local history, the first steel, self-scouring plow.

The May wind-mills were initially made in partnership with two firms, the Candee & Co. in Oneida, and then with Nelson & Co. of Bushnell. Later, the business was moved to Galesburg. By the 1880’s, it was claimed that the May wind-mills were spinning in nearly every state of the union. But I have little personal doubt that if May had not invented the windmill, someone else would have. It was just too much of a good thing to have gone un-invented.

As I grew older, I noticed the old farm homesteads were disappearing one by one. First it was the hired hand’s place, and later it was the homestead house itself, as farms and farmers consolidated. The old 80-acre farms ceased to be competitive. There were, it seems, not enough land and too many farmers. Sometimes a small clump of trees remained to mark where the old house had been. Sometimes the trees went, but the old windmill remained, ready to provide a cold drink to the passing farmer, as he worked his field with hydraulic hands.

My grandparents’ windmill was an old metal job that had gears and handles and through some magical way, still unclear as I look back in time through my youthful eyes, turned circular motion into reciprocal motion to pump an old piston pump well. But somehow, like an old horse, it apparently had been deemed to have performed its useful life and was "put to pasture." It was allowed to spin, unfettered with the weight of extracting water from the prairie soil.

It could spin in the breeze and turn its head like a sunflower, to follow the wind and its subtleties. As spring passed to summer, it would have a bird’s eye view of the growing corn, and the whisper of its leaves, telling of aspirations of the next generation. Perhaps some of the older windmills even heard the stories of the native prairie grasses, or remnants of them, telling their stories of an earlier era. The windmill provided a resting place for the many sparrows that found my grandparents’ farm a suitable location to further increase the abundance of sparrows.

One can still find a forlorn remnant of an old windmill, blades missing and likely with no moving parts. It has probably been photographed in black and white, or in a setting sun and snow, a mechanical relic of another time. But in its mechanical heart, it can recall the horses, cattle, and humans that it furnished with the pure, cold prairie water on a summer day. It may know the births, growth and death of generations of farmers that toiled the prairie soil. It may know the tears shed for sons who left the farm to fight in wars and did not come home. It may have seen the fateful moment that the hurrying farmer reached in to unclog the corn picker while it was still running. It may have seen the farmer’s hand squeezed forever from his arm.

It has spun and sang its metallic song as the horse was replaced by the gasoline tractor, and, in turn, by the diesel tractor. It has spun and sang its metallic song as the farm fences went down, the hedge rows cuts, as two farms become one and then again. It has spun and sang its metallic song as the fields were plowed to the edge of the road, to the edge of the family cemetery, to the edge of the prairie creek. It has spun and sang its metallic song as the last remnants of the prairie grass, and the prairie flowers were plowed under for an extra row of corn or beans.

It has spun and sang its metallic song as the dust from farms beyond the horizon, blew across its prairie soil and men road the rails, looking for work. It has spun and sang its metallic song as the hired hand, his wife and family, left the farm for the city, replaced by a bigger tractor and a combine.

At night beneath the prairie sky, it has watched first the steam locomotive and then the diesel, travel from east to west and back, taking people who apparently were dissatisfied where they had been, or perhaps only displaced by technology. At night, when the wind was calm, its song would cease and be replaced by the whispers of corn, by the peeps of small frogs by the pond, and by the hoot of an owl.

Perhaps my grandparents’ windmill could sense the new machines, north and east, on the edge of Galesburg, on South Henderson Street. These machines were enclosed in buildings, and served by men, working eight-hour shifts, hands dirty with grease and grime, not with the soil of the prairie. Perhaps the windmill understood that the role of man and machine had changed. Where the windmill served the farmer, the factory worker served the machine. The sound of the corn whispering, the frogs peeping, and the owl hooting, gave way to the sound of large shears cutting steel to widths and lengths, and punch presses creating holes for bolts to join the steel together again. Factory workers pushed the steel into the machines and slid it back out again, onto wagons, off to be painted and baked dry, a clotted blood red, in an oven. The noise of the crash of the steel being punched, and the screech of quarter inch steel being cut, drowned out the sounds of the night.

Much of the steel would go into farm sheds and farm buildings to house and protect the new and bigger farm equipment that reduced manual labor for the farmer. This newer farm equipment first rendered the hired man unnecessary. It later demanded more land to justify its economy of scale, and therefore rendered the farmer or his neighbor as unnecessary. Farming became a business of merger and acquisitions, every bit as "red in tooth and claw" as "Corporate America."

Grow or perish.

The windmill may have heard this on a calm prairie evening, the sound of the factory over the sound of the frogs. The windmill may have even understood some of this. But the windmill was no philosopher, nor was it an economist, nor a politician. It may have understood this change more than the hired hand, more than the farmer, and more than the factory worker. But it was only a windmill. It did what it knew to do best.

It spun and sang its metallic song.

Few windmills remain. They are relics of small farms now gone. Long outlasting the hands that built them, and the farm children that splashed in the cold prairie water pumped to the surface.

Some day, we may tell our children, that in the days of the windmills, machines worked for us, and not the other way around.

Perhaps that is why we photograph windmills in solitary, lonely profiles. The windmills are a last of a different breed. A mechanical analogy to the last old oak, silhouetted, the lone sentinel, the last soldier, of a war fought and lost a long time ago.

And we alone are left to spin its tale, whispered in the night so many years ago, when farms were small and farmers had neighbors. When cool prairie water was pumped to the surface by the prairie breeze.