American history preserved through restoration at Windmill Museum

by Autumn Bippert

The United States was once covered coast to coast by windmills that provided underground water as well as power.

The American Windmill Museum in Lubbock celebrates the history of wind-powered machines and the relationship between windmills and railroads. The museum houses more than 200 restored windmills and wind turbines.

“This is a history museum for the American style windmill,” said Coy Harris, a retired executive director and co-founder. “We’ve added to that by going back to early American history around 1600, and an English post mill that we now have on the grounds. So it covers our history of wind power in America from 1621 to right through today.”

Harris said that an estimated 24,000 people per year visit the museum. Regular hours are year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. In June, July, and August, it is also open on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m..

Admission is  $7.50 for adults, $5 for children age 5 to 12, free for children younger than 5, $6 for seniors age 60 and older and veterans, and $20 for a family of four (two adults and two children). 0Q6A7145

The museum has two exhibit halls featuring both water-pumping and electric-producing windmills. All have been restored to original manufacturer specifications.

There is a variety of colorful wooden windmills and practical steel windmills featured inside. There also are windmills with collapsible blades, windmills with directional tails, railroad windmills, industrial windmills, and iron bucket windmills. The museum even exhibits a haunted windmill, the last remaining “twin-wheel” in existence, which had a reputation for killing more than the usual share of windmill workers.

“Back in 1993, when we set this up, there was a lady that worked at Texas Tech that had been photographing windmills for about 30 years,” Harris explained. “And she had noticed that the number of windmills were decreasing.”

In the 1960s, Billie Wolfe, a faculty member in Texas Tech’s College of Home Economics, began traveling throughout the country searching for windmills and interviewing the farmers and ranchers who owned them. In 1992, Wolfe learned of an unusual collection of restored windmills in Nebraska that was for sale. She visited the owner in Mitchell, Nebraska, who had a premier collection of early American windmills.

In the summer of 1993, Wolfe met Coy Harris, a Lubbock native and CEO of Wind Engineering Corporation. Together, they established the American Windmill Museum as a non-profit organization.

“We started to set up this windmill museum to preserve those that were left,” said Harris.

Harris planned, arranged and moved the collection to Lubbock, a collection that included 48 windmills, 171 weights, 56 pumps and models. Then he began the work to raise money for the balance of the purchase.

In early 1997, Wolfe passed away, but the work by her and Harris was rewarded that summer by the City of Lubbock, which offered the windmill group a permanent home in an area of Mackenzie Park.

This 28-acre tract of hills was ideal for the large number of windmills the organization owned at the time. The Scarborough-Linebery Foundation of Midland awarded a grant of more than $1 million to the museum, and a 30,000-square-foot gallery building was built to house the windmills.

As executive director, Harris designed and supervised the construction of the windmill museum, as well as the restoration and continued acquisition of the museum’s collection of rare mills. During the period when the water-pumping windmills were being acquired, Harris collected a number of early electric-generating wind chargers, some dating to the 1920’s.

By 2015, the original building was full of windmills, so a complementary 33,000-square-foot gallery building was built and opened in 2016.

Featured inside the museum is a model train system, which has a 3,000-foot mainline track and a layout of the South Plains region.

“We put in a big train system because the trains and the windmill came out here together,” Harris said. “And they worked very well together.”

The historical model train system can run 10 trains at the same time across the large layout. There are 36 scale windmills and five railroad-style windmills that were printed on a 3-D printer. It also features 12 custom-built houses, 34 buildings and a 1940 vintage downtown Lubbock.

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“There’s a lot of things to see here, so there are different things for different people,” Harris said. “All the kids love the train sets. The older people, who had windmills, like to see the windmills that they used to have. The ladies that come out to visit here, if they’re not into windmills, we have miniature houses that are used on our train set. Plus we have certain wind turbines, in fact, we have a big one that runs the whole place. So there’s quite a lot of things to see out here.”

Also inside the museum is the “Legacy of the Wind” windmill mural,which covers 6,000-square-feet of wall space. It also houses one of the largest collections of grinding millstones in the Garrison Millstone room, along with the Alta Reed collection of miniature houses.

Outside the museum is the Linebery Windmill Park, which has a variety of windmills across its 28-acres. The park features both old and new windmills that can be seen and heard pumping water from underground.

Also in the park is the Vestas Wind Turbine, which has a 154-foot diameter wheel and stands on a 165-foot tall tower. The turbine stands out as a giant among the windmills. It is large enough to power the museum complex.