Monday, September 27, 2010

Cowboys and Windmills

September 27, 2010 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

When you're young and trying to learn to be a cowboy there are several rules one should follow. First and most important is to listen and not be heard. When my boss Bill Barkley would explain and introduce me to a new skill for my cowboy experience I often found myself asking too many questions and not listening close enough to details. This was the case with stringing barbed wire, packing salt, digging postholes and working on Aeromotors or windmills.

There were many windmills located on the old Barkley Ranches when I worked in the 1950s. This one was located along First Water Road where the Crosscut Trailhead is located today. Some historian claim barbed-wire, windmills, the Winchester rifle and the Colt single-action revolver tamed the West.
As many an old rancher or Midwest farmer can tell you, windmills can be damn dangerous to the inexperienced. The old Barkley Ranch had several working (or partially working) windmills in the summer of 1955. I believe there were seven or Aeromotors windmills scattered over the 117 sections of rangeland that was the Barkley Cattle Company in the 1950s. After the demise of William A. Barkley in September of 1955, the ranch slowly began to decline. I worked during the twilight years of the Barkley dynasty. Windmill repair was still a necessary job on the ranch and required some skill. I was young and capable of climbing the windmill frame to service and work on these Aeromotors. I repaired the windmill at Don's Tank, the U Ranch, and Salt Tank several times. The mill's blades and gear cases were often shot full of holes by inconsiderate shooters or hunters. I replaced many windmill blades each summer. It always amazed me why the ignorant would vandalize such important equipment for pumping water to animals in such a dry arid region. In the Sahara Desert, if a man, or women damage a water-well it was a death penalty act.

I began my windmill apprenticeship in July of 1955. The temperature was somewhere around 108 degrees in the shade. Huge dark anvil shaped thunderclouds rose above the towering facade of the Dacite Cliffs north of the Quarter Circle U Ranch and to east over Coffee Flat. I had been instructed to check the windmill motors, oil them and then turn the tail vane parallel with the blades of the windmill so the winds of a thunderstorm would not damage them. This needed to be done only on the two at the Quarter Circle U Ranch. After all, these windmills provided the water we used at the ranch.

I climbed to the top of the windmill nearest the corral to quickly check the Aeromotor and then tie off the wind vane with the mill blades. I then climbed down to the ground and rushed down the pasture to the other windmill. I could see a storm was on its way.

Wind was beginning to kick up a little and the thought of climbing up on the lower windmill tower did not set to well with me. However, I wanted to please the boss and do my job as best I could. By the time I arrived at the base of the second windmill the blades were spinning wildly. I pulled the release lever for the wind vane chat kept the blades pointed away from the wind. The wind vane slammed into the blades, but finally the mill blades quite turning.

The wind was still blowing quite hard when I climbed up the windmill frame. That was my first big mistake! By the time I reached the top windmill frame thefwind was gusting and dust was so thick I couldn't see the ground. All of a sudden I realized how serious and hopeless my situation had become in just seconds. It was like riding a wild bull in an arena at night and the lights going out. Within seconds I was hanging on for dear life.

Read part II here.