Windmill Etiquette

I grew up in a dry part of southwest Texas in the 1950s, an area that had still been dealing with Indian raids only 75 years earlier. Many diverse tribes of Comanche and Apache Indians, among others, had roamed that region of Texas and Mexico, which was an hour away, for generations. As a kid, if I ever rode along to visit another farm or ranch, I’d always take a look around for arrowheads. A lot of friends, even some girls, had a little collection of flint arrowheads they’d found. We sometimes traded them. Most of the time they were kept in an old cigar box which, if full, was pretty heavy.

Arrowheads reveal true craftsmanship. I used to imagine the time and effort devoted to shaping a piece of flint rock into an arrowhead, or spearhead, or even a basic knife for cutting meat or leather. Mind boggling. Perhaps only to lose it on the first shot at a running deer?

could have come from the cigar box collection I had as a kid

Though a few farmers and ranchers did well, most eked out a living. “Land poor” was a phrase that meant you owned some land but didn’t have much money. Depending on how the crop or livestock prices went, living off the land was quite literal for many. This harsh life was largely affected by the weather; I have seen celebration over 1/4" of rain.

Water was a precious commodity. Today, some say it is “the” rarest resource. Not quite desert, southwest Texas is mostly covered with mesquite and acacia trees as well as a few oak and pecan.

prickly pear cactus

Plus a lot of cactus, mostly of the prickly pear variety. Once in a while, cactus will produce beautiful flowers… but all of the time, it threatens with sharp needles.

There were a few small rivers in the region plus a few more that ran only seasonally, if at all. The nearest one to Grandpa’s farm was about ten miles away. Though there are sections of rocky hills, most of the soil is quite rich. But dry.

Irrigation wasn’t really “a thing” in our farming and ranching region. Water was too precious.

While the small nearby town had a water system for the few dozen houses it served, there were no water pipes going out to the country. Farmers and ranchers had to provide their own water from their own land, if there was any. This was accomplished by drilling a water well and constructing a windmill on top of it, effectively putting a “straw” into the underlying Edwards Aquifer and hoping to hit a pocket of water.

Windmills have been used to pump water for thousands of years and there are many designs, some characteristic of various parts of the world. The squatty Dutch windmill with wide, slow-moving spokes, for example.

typical Texas windmill in the 1950's

In southwest Texas back in the day, the Aermotor Windmill Company of San Angelo dominated with their iconic design but there were many other brands, always advertised on the tail vane (which points the wheel “into” the wind for maximum turning power).

Some older windmills were constructed on an all-wooden tower. Undoubtedly sturdy at one point, wind and weather took their toll so most of those were rickety. It was scary to climb up more than 5–6 rungs of the ladder, especially if the wind was blowing. Most of the old windmills in our area had been replaced with galvanized “angle iron” towers, dinosaur-sized Erector-set assemblies topped with the windmill mechanism itself. The newer windmill towers were usually taller and felt more “solid”, enticing kids to climb up the maintenance ladder as high as they dared. Maybe all the way to the top deck!

The circular motion of the windmill wheel is converted by gears into an up and down stroke of the pump rod, which moves inside a vertical pipe, the well shaft, that goes down into the earth to a pool of underground water. At ground level, attached to a rod running up one leg all the way to the top gearbox, was a 3-foot long wooden arm — a lever — that you used to engage the pump.

Most windmills had a small water tank, usually on a short tower, alongside. The windmill brings water up and fills the tank. Some side tanks were like huge tin cans on stilts. If near a highway, you might see advertising on the side. Grandpa was more modern and preferred the solid concrete tank design, a large vertical cylinder from the ground up.

Unless the well ran dry, windmills are located where the water is. That might be next to a farm house, near the corner of a section of property, or in the middle of a remote expanse of country.

There was an unspoken “windmill code” anywhere I went in the dry parts of Texas. It was all about respect and went something like:

a cup gets “used”, yet remains “whole”
  1. Water is life; anyone is welcome to drink their fill.
  2. If you remove the enameled tin cup attached with a piece of rusty bailing wire to one leg of the windmill, put it back securely when done. Leave it for the next visitor just as you found it.
  3. When you engage the pump handle on one leg of the windmill to draw up fresh water, disengage it when you are done. Waste not.
  4. When you turn the handle on the water spigot provided at the base of the well shaft, take all the water you need… then turn it off. No water would be wasted if the windmill is disengaged, but it will keep the bugs and dirt out for the next visitor.
  5. If you decide to relieve yourself, there are some bushes on the other side of the water tank. If you decide to really relieve yourself, dig a small hole first and cover it up after. You’re on your own for paper.
  6. Feel free to rest in the shade of any nearby trees but no camping on private land without asking permission. I’ve seen such permission given to total strangers.
  7. Windmills often have small cattle pens nearby and short water tanks for watering livestock. These had floats and would be refilled by the larger tank. Don’t mess with the floats or remove old boards from the pen fences. (Don’t break things.)

Consider that the farmers and ranchers themselves were NOT the only ones to use their windmill “facilities”. There were a lot of “hired hands”, both long term and short term. And…

… there were illegals from nearby Mexico.

Many followed the planting and harvesting seasons, just as they do today.

There were pickups and trucks, sometimes in long highway caravans, moving from one handshake-contracted group of fields to the next, delivering a long day or week of work. Big business as usual, even if it included “mordida” (bribes) at the border.

On a smaller scale, I saw many old pickups stuffed with complete families, or groups of both young and old men, plus all their belongings tied onto the back. They would drive down back country roads and up the lane to each farmhouse, ask for work, and frequently find it.

Other illegals were just passing through on their way to the big city and better fortunes. A few would be on foot, actually hiking hundreds of miles cross-country… over barbed wire fences, across open fields, through dense brush… frequently following the windmills that can be seen from a distance, a stepping-stone in the desired direction. This is the category of people historically referred to as “wetbacks” since they often literally swam across the Rio Grande River into Texas (or just waded in some spots).

Yet rarely were there problems!

Local or stranger, everyone seemed to practice proper Windmill Etiquette. I still haven’t figured out how they learned it.

Or, for that matter, how so many seem to have forgotten the modern-day version of it.


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