Farmer Frank Engel has restored and installed 90 windmills. He’s hoping to get to 100.
His nostalgic interest in windmills reminds him of his younger years. It was a time when steel windmills were “working” windmills and pumped water on their family farm in rural Hampshire. “It was an important time in history,” said Frank. “In settling the West, windmills were needed for pumping water. Railroads were used for transportation. And, barbed wire kept livestock contained.”
“As I got older I wanted to go back to my roots,” Frank explained. “And I could do that by having a windmill on my farm.” So he found a windmill in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. He bought it, took it apart, put it in his pickup truck, brought it home, reassembled and installed it.
His first windmill was a 12-foot wheel Aermotor, Model 602, circa 1930. The steel structure stands 32 feet tall in the center of his farmstead towering over his barn. On the tail vane he added their farm name, “Engel Farms.”
His hunt for windmills and parts can be challenging. Frank and his wife, Carol, enjoy road trips and on one of their trips out west Frank noticed a pile of windmill parts alongside the road in Kansas. They stopped to talk to the farm owner and learned that the pile contained four steel windmills in pieces. “The only problem was I was 600 miles from home!” said Frank.
Returning home, he thought about it some more and decided to buy the Kansas windmills. He borrowed a gooseneck trailer and headed back there for his find, with his son. He drove straight through and wasted no time getting home. He assembled all four windmills – two for himself and two to sell. But he wondered if there would be interest in selling the old steel windmills.
He placed the two windmills at the corner of Route 72 and New Lebanon Road, just south of his farmstead, and put a “For Sale” sign on them. Within hours he received 18 phone calls and got them sold. “That’s when I realized there was a lot of interest in windmills,” said an elated Frank.
So his windmill hobby turned into a side business. His hunt for windmills and parts has taken him throughout the Midwest. Locally, he acquired some from Batavia (City of Windmills), once home to six windmill factories from the turn of the century to 1951. He purchased his Challenge, Good Hue, and US Wind Engine & Pump Company windmills in Batavia.
“Some parts are hard to find – some are obsolete,” noted the windmill master. “Having parts numbers, I’ve used a foundry in Wisconsin that makes new castings.”
At first he reconstructed steel windmills but it wasn’t long before he was making wooden windmills. “My wife wanted one and I like them too,” noted Frank. His first was a Sectional Monitor L, which he found and restored the cypress-wood wheel and then made the wooden tower. Wooden windmills require more work, having to prime and paint the wood, and involve more maintenance than steel, Frank clarified.
Once a year Frank attends trade fairs, where he meets people who also refurbish windmills. He networks with others to find windmills and parts. To this day, his trade fair contacts are his best resources and he communicates and does business with them the old fashioned way, by telephone.
It’s his hobby when he’s not farming. Frank says he started his windmill hobby because he likes windmills. But also, “My wife said I needed a hobby besides fishing and farming!” He farms with his son, Ed in northern DeKalb County. They grow corn and soybeans on 1,000 acres, and do some custom farming. They quit feeding cattle in 2003, but feed a small herd of show calves which the grandchildren show at county fairs.
The 79-year-old farmer says he only works on windmills in the summer and winter, when he has time aside from farming. He uses his farm machine shop for restoring and assembling windmills. Ed helps him in the shop and also climbs the windmills to lubricate the wheels. “It’s a nice hobby for Dad,” said Ed. “I help him and the grandkids help on occasion.”
Frank is a pretty good handy man – he used to do carpentry work for a construction company during his off-farm seasons and is a self-taught mechanic from working on farm machinery.
When he started restoring windmills he had no manual. “It was by trial and error,” said Frank. “Welcome to the windmill world! I would look at old pictures of windmills and figure out how to assemble them.”
He likes all of his windmills on his farmstead. Frank has 12 windmills that make his Hampshire farmstead rather unique. He doesn’t have a favorite because “he likes them all.” The wheels vary in size from 8 to 14 feet in diameter atop 20 to 40 foot towers. Nine are steel and three are made out of wood. One of his windmills is located in the middle of a pasture. Frank says it makes him feel like he’s out West; he enjoys the sight of windmills in his western travels. Frank has refurbished windmills for each of his adult children – Sandy Pritchett, Ed and Jeff Engel – for their backyards. Frank is currently working on three more for local farmers.
Discussing the various types of windmills, Frank says, “Aermotors are the cadillac of windmills – many were made in Batavia.” All of his windmills contain metal plates which describe the type of wheel, the year it was made, and the company which manufactured it.
Windmill parts are trendy at the moment so people want to purchase tail vanes and parts of the wheel for home décor. He coats the metal parts and sells them separately. Most of what he makes in profit goes back into more windmills and parts – sort of like farming, investing in the business. When Frank Engel started restoring windmills he had no manual. “It was by trial and error,” said Frank. “Welcome to the windmill world! I would look at old pictures of windmills and figure out how to assemble them.”
His most notable windmills are the ones he reconstructed and placed at museums – the Sycamore History Museum, the Elgin Historical Society Museum, and the Huntley Historical Society Museum. He also assembled one for the first Superman movie, “Man of Steel” and again for the sequel movie in Yorkville.
Feeling a sense of nastalgia again, Frank attributes the demise of the windmill to World War II. During the war metal was in high demand and windmill production waned. Then after the war, rural electrification replaced the need for windmills in providing power to run rural water wells.
The resurgence of windmills today is purely for visual appeal and for those that are passionate about these rural iconic structures, like Frank Engel. Most windmills are not used to pump water like they did years ago. But there are a few which are operational, such as the one in the midst of the Engel farmstead, complete with a hand pump and a tank that holds 500 gallons of water.
• Windmills convert wind into energy through the rotation of the wheel. The energy generated by a windmill was used to mill grain and pump water.
• An average windmill spinning in a brisk breeze will pump about 3 gallons a minute whenever the wind blows. That adds up to nearly 1,500 gallons a day.
• Windmills were common on American farms at the turn of the century. With the development of rural electrification in the 1930s, the windmills were no longer needed for pumping water on the farm and by the 1950s were abandoned.
• Today, windmills have been replaced by wind turbines as an energy source