Texas Architect, Steve Chambers Enlists The Windmill Wrangler

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Preserving Windmills: Restoration Of A Texas Icon

Chambers Architects engaged renowned windmill restorer, Jim Collums, to rehabilitate an antique “Eclipse” windmill for the J-5 Ranch. Jim designed his ‘calling card’ windmill boots.

Windmills are vital symbols of American history and still perform an important role on the prairies, farms and landscapes throughout the United States. They are a signature symbol of westward expansion and the development of the American built environment. In the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century, windmills provided water and powered the life of many ranches and homesteads. “From 1897 until 1956, the windmill was the only source of water for most ranches,” said Jim Collums, professional windmill restorer. Before the advent of the rural electrical coop grid, the ‘mills’ were also used as wind chargers, charging batteries so that isolated farms could run direct current for lighting and other uses.

Windmill restoration, the art of taking antique and worn-out windmills and bringing them back to life, is a skill and interest that few people have. One special man is Poteet resident Jim Collums, the same Jim Collums who co-owns the Poteet Country Winery in Central Texas. Jim restores these vintage structures, and at the same time, makes a significant contribution to the sustainable environment, where water is scarce and its supply unpredictable.

Among Collums’ latest restoration projects is an antique windmill near Ft. Stockton, Texas, the Canon Ranch Railroad Eclipse Windmill. The windmill pumps water into an 80 ft. x 5 ft. deep pila (Spanish for basin), which sits on top of a mountain. This windmill is the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States, still standing over an existing well. This particular type is known as a “railroad” windmill, because it was designed for the railroads to pump water for steam engines. So unique is this windmill that the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, sent engineers to the site to record the windmill’s measurement and weight. The grand structure is a windmill with a 22-1/2 ft. diameter and a 50 ft. tower. The Eclipse-type windmill was one of the more successful mills used to pump water in the nineteenth century United States.

“I used fresh rawhide, which holds the blade steady. We cut the rawhide into strips and wrap the blades with the hide,” said Collums, who is a stickler for accuracy, making sure the finished windmill captures its glory days. “I studied its history and used the same type of nails as the original, in the same spots and the same bolts.”

Wind energy has been used for centuries. Ancient records show sailboats of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the ancient Egyptians. The Vikings used their sailboats to cross the North Atlantic and to explore the coasts of Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and North America. Sail power soon became the main propulsion system for the world’s water transportation for many hundreds of years and became the great transformer of the world’s economy–and is still used for many essential conveyances today.

Wind power was also harnessed to help grind grains (thus, the term “Wind Mill”) and to pump water. The windmills of Europe–and the famous windmills of the Netherlands in particular–are fine examples of these ancient inventions, where windmills often pump water out of the lowlands. Today, wind power is also being used for more than propulsion and pumping water. It’s one of the important alternative sources used to generate electricity.

Collums shows Steve Chambers examples of his extensive restoration work on the antique windmills he finds and restores across the United States.

Jim’s hands reveal the hazardous wear and tear of his unique profession of windmill restoration.

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