Windmills pull not only water up from below the earth but they also break a seemingly endless horizon to pull the eye toward heaven and optimism. In a stark, dry landscape, such attractions nurture not only bodies but also spirits. Just the memory of spinning blades drawing thin streams of cool water to spill into a tank is enough to send the mind back in time to recover damp earth scents and the sensation of green buffalo grass curling under bare feet. This ability to reclaim the past explains why so many paintings and photos of isolated windmills hang in Great Plains homes and galleries. This prairie icon means survival to anyone connected to this place for generations.
Wind has powered human life since early civilization. Confining it and making it work isn’t unique to Americans, but it has made homesteading and agriculture in Flyover country possible. Before these skinny towers lured the eye upward from rolling waves of blue stem, Indian, and grama grasses, the arid nature of the place meant only nomadic people could survive here. Once Nathaniel Halladay invented the self-governing windmill, stickers—people who put down roots to stay through the good times and the bad—could claim homesteads and make dreams come true.
Once hopeful settlers declared the boundaries of their land, they drilled into the ancient underground lake beneath their feet to find water for themselves and their livestock. Those fortunate enough to tap into the aquifer no longer had to depend on live springs or the capture of unpredictable rains in a cistern. Where native occupants packed and moved when a water source vanished, this new technology permitted incoming settlers to create their own oases in what people east of the Mississippi called the Great American Desert.
This newly patented device promised more than it could deliver to many would-be ranchers and farmers who headed west to claim free land. Now days, poets, artists, historians, and the curious cruise dusty country roads to look for crumbling telltale towers silhouetted by collapsed ruins in the distance. Sometimes bullet-riddled vanes still spin in the wind, emitting a haunting banshee cry. Ironically, greenery growing at the base of these relics hints at still present underground treasure.
What these backroad wanderers find are stories written in dreams, sweat, and imported resources. Anyone who stops long enough to let their eyes wander over a former homestead in the middle of a current farmer’s wheat field or pasture has a decision to make. Do these ruins reveal the prelude to the lovely brick home and giant metal sheds up the road a few miles, or do they tell instead the sad tale of a forgotten family who left during hard times? Too often, the second version is the truth, but few of us find that romantic or memorable. We prefer the first, a tale of expectation and success.
Hope is what Halladay and his competitors’ windmills delivered and what makes them iconic prairie images even now. As long as some of us call these isolated plains home and long to remain here, someone will keep photographing or painting bent and tumbling towers that pierce the horizon and tell us dreams can come true.