In Texas Museum, Wind's Evolution is on Display

LUBBOCK — A century ago, Texas was covered with windmills, which pumped water from aquifers so cattle could drink and gardens could grow. Thousands of these old-style models still exist in remote pastures, but in recent years far taller and more powerful turbines have sprouted atop western mesas, transforming this oil and gas state into the national leader in wind-generated electrical power.

This evolution is on display at the American Wind Power Center in Lubbock, which bills itself as the world’s largest windmill museum. Dozens of old, clanking windmills occupy the grounds of a small, breezy hilltop, irrigating the grass, while a 165-foot-tall modern turbine, made by the Danish company Vestas, towers in the background and supplies the museum’s electricity. Long, sleek blades from another monster turbine, the first manufactured by General Electric, lie along the edge of the parking lot, awaiting the construction of a new wing the proprietors hope to build, finances permitting.

The museum is the culmination of more than 30 years of work by Billie Wolfe. Wolfe, who taught at the College of Home Economics at Texas Tech University, got interested in old windmills in the 1960s, and much later she teamed with Coy Harris, chief executive of the Wind Engineering Corporation, to create the museum, which was established in 1997. (Wolfe died earlier that year.)

Harris, who is now the museum’s executive director, continues to expand the collection and plans to add 10 to 15 smaller electric turbines — the size people could put on their ranches — on an unused section of the property. “We’re going to put in a mini wind farm,” he said.

The Lubbock windmill collection is not Texas’ only one. Two-hundred-plus miles north, several dozen windmills are clustered in a roadside park in Spearman, just past the Hungry Cowboy restaurant upon entering the town from the south on Route 207. (It’s only fitting that the Panhandle, the state’s windiest region, boasts a wind-power display.) These are from the collection of a legendary local and windmill lover, J. B. Buchanan, and the names on the tails include some of the most storied windmill companies in history, like Eclipse, Aermotor and Axtell.

But the American Wind Power Center has a more established collection of the antique machines. It even includes a nearly completed mural, called Legacy of the Wind, which is 34 feet high and 200 feet long and takes up two walls of the museum’s covered patio, which is often used for weddings and other events. The mural depicts several dozen windmills, ranging from the ancient grain grinders to the modern electrical giants, situated within scenes from rural life. There are railroads, too, because windmills used to be planted beside the tracks so engineers could get fresh water to generate steam.

The mural’s artist, La Gina Fairbetter of Lubbock, has been working on the project for three years and is about to apply the finishing varnish, which must be done in the mornings before the heat arrives. Windmills are “part of the landscape,” she said. “It’s part of sustainability. It’s part of being alive.”

Fairbetter, who also has a bit of a specialty painting dinosaurs, has sometimes added unusual touches when the whim strikes her, including — as of this month, in response to visitor demands — a horned toad. “People are like, ‘Where’s the horned toad? Where’s the horned toad? I want to see a horned toad!’ ” she said. “So we sneaked one in.”

Last year the museum acquired one of the few windmills in the United States that actually grinds grain. Built in the 1970s, the Flowerdew Hundred post mill was modeled on windmills that existed centuries earlier. It uses canvas sails and moveable, hinged shutters to capture the wind. It rotates around a central shaft as the wind changes direction, and looks more like a two-story hut than most people’s notion of a windmill. On the second floor, two giant millstones, each more than a century old, can grind grain when the wind blows.

When the mill is operating, “it’s a wonderful place to be for the smell and the noise,” Harris said. “The building is popping and creaking.” He plans to sell windmill-ground cornmeal in the museum shop.

Inside the museum are dozens more water windmills, including one that a rancher carved by hand and another that tips over, which allowed cowboys to fix it without climbing the tower. Also of note are the large glass batteries that go with a “windcharger,” a type of early electrical wind machine that was widely used on remote farms and ranches before rural electrification supplanted windmills in the late 1930s.

And then there is one of the quirkier displays: colorful hanging tapestries made from T-shirts collected from wind-energy conferences over the decades. Vaughn Nelson, a retired West Texas A&M University professor who helped pioneer the state’s wind power movement, began quilting the shirts together because, he said, “I had a whole bunch of them.”

[Editor's note: Texas Tribune reporter Kate Galbraith wrote this story for the website of Trib content partner Texas Monthly. It was originally published in the twice-weekly New York Times/Texas Tribune section, to which the magazine's writers contribute.]

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