It’s written on the wind….

    Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.

    Interesting, and challenging jobs have always seemed to find me. Whether its construction, technology, grant writing, automotive, woodworking, plumbing, electrical, or a myriad other jobs I’ve taken, its usually something that no one else would try, or just something I was interested in trying to do while picking up a skill (or a little frustration) in the process.

    Odd jobs were my meal ticket in augmenting my low starting salary of $13,000 ($50,000 today) as a teacher and coach at Niobrara County High School.


    Early in my tenure in Lusk I met Dick Pfister on a Wednesday evening at “Men’s Night” at the Niobrara County Municipal Golf Course and hit it off with the old Marine immediately.

    Dick was a captain during World War II, commanding a Marine Engineering company composed largely of black troops. His stories of working with Seabees and the challenges of working on an endless chain of Pacific islands were riveting.

    Dick was a multi-millionaire, but one of those guys who never was conspicuous about it. He owned several ranches, and one was over 60,000 acres and stretched from near the intersection of US Highway 85 at Redbird, east into Nebraska.

    A windmill near Van Tassel, Niobrara County – h/t Randy Tucker

    He had a lot of windmills on those tens of thousands of acres of rolling Niobrara County grass, and that’s where my story begins.


    Dick hired me to wrangle calves in late June after my first teaching year was complete.  What he didn’t tell me was that they were December calves, meaning they were six-month old brutes. But as Dick said when I saw them in the holding pen, “You’re a big kid, you can handle them, use both hands if you have to.” I did use both hands pulling back on one big hind leg with my left foot forcing the other leg forward after tossing the calves to the ground as the real cowboys roped and dragged them to me. It was dusty, dirty work, but lunch was included, and it paid $50. I was a little sore after the third day but $150 richer.

    Niobrara County windmill – h/t Randy Tucker

    He must have gotten a good report on me from his hands. The following Wednesday he asked me if I’d ever worked on a windmill. Nope, we didn’t have any windmills on the farm growing up, but we did have a few hand-cranked spigots over shallow wells that I’d refurbished with new gaskets and hardware.

    That was enough for Dick.

    The view from the ground on a decaying wooden windmill near Lance Creek – h/t Randy Tucker

    He had six windmills spread all over eastern Niobrara County that needed attention. I had my highway department yellow 1972 GMC ½ ton pickup, a box full of tools and was ready for the challenge.

    Dick gave me a couple of gasket sets, and another couple of bearings in case they needed to be replaced. The main purpose of the job was to grease the gears and check the flow of water out of the 1920s vintage Aeromotor windmills.

    Windmills are amazing devices, dating back to the middle ages, but only to the mid-19th century in their modern form.

    The machine that fueled locomotives via the wind – h/r Randy Tucker

    Those that decry the advancing wind turbine revolution in favor of sticking with fossil fuels until they are depleted don’t understand the role the wind played in western expansion, not just on farms and ranches, but in providing water for the coal-powered locomotives that raced east to west and back again on the transcontinental railroad.

    Windmills, big ones, filled the water tanks at many lonely outposts on the tracks, making travel possible across the vastness of the arid American West. Without water there was no steam, and without steam, no railroad.

    The wind took the blades off this windmill on a 1914 homestead near Lance Creek – h/t Randy Tucker

    I’m sure those thoughts were in my head as I set out for the first windmill, this one just a few miles northeast of Lusk.

    A windmill is a lonely sentinel on the plains, they were easy to spot despite the vastness of the Pfister ranch. They dominated the otherwise flat skyline and were beacons to birds, and large mammals since they created artificial waterholes.

    Dick had a pair of wooden towers, and the others were steel frames. Three of them had ladders, and three didn’t, but at 24, who needs a ladder?

    My tools included a grease gun, hammers, box end wrenches, pipe wrench, crescent wrench, vice grip pliers, and an 18-inch section of rail cut from a railroad track that Dick gave me.

    The first order of the day was to lock the windmill in place, that’s where the vice grips came in.

    Dick warned me that working with the windmill in operation could mean losing a few fingers or getting thrown off the tower if a gust came up.

    With the windmill locked in place, I climbed to the top of the tower to inspect the individual blades. If they were bent or damaged heavily by hail or wind they had to come down for repair.

    These were held in place by square head bolts, vintages of the pre-Depression era before modern hexagon nuts and bolts became the standard. They were amazingly free of rust in the arid Wyoming climate, but they were often locked by years of exposure to the elements. I twisted a few in half, but most came loose after a good dose of WD-40.

    I dropped the damaged blades to the ground, took each one to the bed of my pickup and hammered them straight on the railroad iron.

    An Aeromtor that’s seen better days – h/t Randy Tucker

    One other piece of equipment was a 50-foot nylon rope. Once the blades were repaired, I lashed them together, tied the rope around my waist, and climbed up the tower. With a handful of nuts, bolts, and lock washers in my tool belt and an array of wrenches, I reattached the blades.

    The other work was checking the pump. Those windmills worked via a pitman arm that moved up and down as the wind drove the vanes. The motion worked a traditional hand pump that lifted water from the shallow wells with each stroke.

    If the gaskets were shot, the pump back flowed and there wasn’t enough suction to pump at maximum. Taking a pump apart wasn’t that difficult and most of the parts were brass so they weren’t rusted, just worn out.

    When the gaskets were back in, and the blades were repaired, I greased all the moving parts and exposed gears, either with a zerk and grease gun or by packing the gears and bearings by hand and waiting a few minutes for the wind to come up (as it always does over there) to check my handiwork. If the wind didn’t arrive, I’d climb back up the tower, spin the windmill by hand and watch to see if the pump was working.

    I replaced a lot of pump parts but didn’t have to replace any of the main gears on the rotors.

    Each repair took the better part of a morning and Dick paid me $35 a windmill for the job. It doesn’t seem like much in today’s inflated economy, but that works out to about $140 in modern dollars. That’s not a bad rate for a young guy looking to make a few extra bucks.

    Each time we drive back to Lusk or on occasion when we head south towards Muddy Gap I spot a few windmills and it takes me back to a time when hard work was easy but often challenging and something I looked forward to.


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