“Did you notice my windmill as you drove in?” Middleton dairyman Vincent Meinholz asked as I was leaving his farm. “It has quite a story behind it. Stop back another day, and I’ll tell you about it.”
The windmill in question was merrily spinning at a fast pace but was not connected to a pump jack. Obviously it was still standing because of its history and a serious attachment to it by the Meinholz family.
Most every Midwest farm had a windmill in the first half of the 20th century. The windmills were constructed, not as a picturesque symbol of a family farm, but to pump water from a deep well for the humans and livestock on that farm.
With the advent of electricity in the 1930s and its installation on most farms by the early 1940s, the giant steel structures became obsolete. Many were taken down and sold as scrap as the farms were electrified, and by the latter half of the 1900s, those remaining served as memories of a fading era prior to the advent of industrial technology.
Although windmills were used in Europe as long as 2,000 years ago, the modern windmill used on U.S. farms was invented in 1854 by a Connecticut machinist.
Hundreds -- even thousands -- of companies began making windmills, but most failed because they could not stand upright for long because of wind forces.
The Baker Manufacturing Co. of Evansville began operations in 1873 and two years later began making wooden windmills. In 1892, the company began making the Steel Monitor windmill and continued making later steel models until the 1960s. (The company still thrives today in Evansville making a variety of equipment, including pumping systems.)
In 1937, Christian (Chris) Meinholz and his family of eight children were farmers in the town of Springfield north of Middleton. In addition to farming, Meinholz was a skilled blacksmith who could make or fix about anything.
His son Hubert lived on another farm nearby and was using a falling-down wooden windmill to get water from a deep well that had been hand dug by the Schroeder family, which had owned the farm some years earlier.
Vincent Meinholz, Hubert’s son, now owns the farm and relates how his grandfather heard that WIBA, a Madison radio station owned by The Capital Times newspaper, had constructed a new radio tower, and the old one had been knocked down by Sinaiko Brothers, a Madison scrap iron dealer. The structure was lying on the ground and was for sale.
Somehow Meinholz saw a future in that now-bent-and-bruised steel radio tower and paid Sinaiko $50 for it, took it apart and hauled it back to his farm.
His idea was to build a windmill -- two windmills, in fact -- from that mass of steel, nuts and bolts and whatever.
Vincent Meinholz says his granddad worked long and hard in a shed on the home farm up the road to straighten and reconfigure the steel. In order to drill holes he bought a drill press from the Gisholt Co. in Madison. He remade the 180-foot-tall radio tower into two farm windmills, 80 and 65 feet tall, and had 26 feet of steel left over.
In 1938, the 65-foot windmill was erected at the farm of his daughter Odelia and her husband Math Ripp, who farmed north of Waunakee. It is now owned by their son Virgil and Marietta Ripp.
In 1939, the 80-foot windmill went up on the Hubert Meinholz farm.
Both windmills are standing strong and solid today although they do not pump water. They are landmarks because of their size; the normal farm windmill ran about 40 feet in height.
How did Chris Meinholz carry out this seemingly impossible feat?
Vincent Meinholz marvels that his grandfather did it without computers (remember, it was 1937) and only had one winter of grade school. “I guess he knew how to figure things out,” Meinholz says. “He had to fashion two smaller towers from one big one, meaning he had to change all the angles and bolts. And every bolt is double nutted.”
How do you erect a 65-foot and 80-foot tower even if you get them built on the ground?
They used a “gin pole,” Meinholz says. “It was two 40-foot poles (he bought them in Madison) that were placed like an inverted ‘V’ and then via a cable and pulley system, a tractor and lots of help, they raised the towers.”
The official description from the Internet says: “A hand-operated derrick which has a nearly vertical pole supported by guy ropes; the load is raised on a rope that passes through a pulley at the top and over a winch at the foot.”
Chris Meinholz asked Carl F. Statz, founder of Waunakee’s now-80-year-old farm equipment business, and his brother Tony Statz, a Waunakee John Deere dealer, to supervise the job of erecting the huge tower.
“It was a big day when they erected the windmill on my place,” Vincent says. “It took a big crew of a dozen or more, a tractor, men on ropes stabilizing the whole thing and dozens of spectators all giving advice.”
Virgil Ripp has a few photos of the event on his farm and agreed it must have been something to watch.
Before the two windmills were actually erected, four 3-foot-by-10-foot concrete pylons were buried as anchors, and a big and deep anchor was prepared to hold the block and tackle that raised the towers.
In order to hold the water that the windmills would pump, each barn had to have a holding tank. The one at the Ripp farm is buried under the second floor driveway, but the 4,000- to 5,000-gallon tank at the Meinholz farm is visible.
Vincent Meinholz wonders how his granddad built the huge double wall tank without ready-mix concrete. “It must have taken a lot of help and a lot of concrete and sand to get it done,” he says. “And they did a good job. We still use the tank for our cows and calves today.”
The original well below the windmill at the Meinholz farm was used until 10-15 years ago when the casing broke. The well was filled in and a new one drilled about a dozen feet away that is in use today.
Vincent replaced the windmill part of the structure in 1972. “I went to Baker Manufacturing in Evansville, and they had a new wheel -- still in a box and unassembled,” he says. “They sold it to me for $75. My brother Chris, who worked for a crane company in Middleton, brought a tall crane here one day, and I put the new wheel on the tower.”
The hand-dug well that was long ago redrilled under the windmill at the Ripp farm provided water via electricity until three years ago.
The original Meinholz homestead where Christian worked on the radio tower -- the farm had electricity -- that became two windmills is still in the family and owned by Marty Meinholz, a grandson of Christian.
WIBA radio is still a thriving radio station with towers much taller than the one Christian bought for $50 some 75 years ago.
There are probably holes in this story -- no eyewitnesses are around -- but the mere fact that this farmer, blacksmith, innovator and genius would even think about taking apart a 180-foot radio tower and making two windmills, putting them in place and seeing them actually pump water seems amazing.
How did he do it? I guess because he could.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.