A summer breeze rustles the trees and starts the windmill blades moving in the clear blue sky over Kendallville, Ind. (pop. 9,616).
“Listen close,” says Marie Pearsall, “and you can hear them sing.”
Sure enough, a soft whispery song seems to float on the breeze from the 42 windmills jostling in the wind at the Mid-America Windmill Museum, on the east side of town. As the blades turn, their whistling call sounds like a faint melody and the meadow comes alive in a virtual serenade.
“We had a woman come here one day and say that when she feels really low, she likes to just go out and sit and listen to the windmills,” says Pearsall, a retired schoolteacher and museum volunteer. “On a windy day, you can feel that constant rhythm. It’s quieting and nurturing.”
Of course, making soothing music wasn’t the main goal of historic windmills. From the time a young America was settled, the machines played an important role in pumping water and grinding grain. Windmills were there when the Heartland, the Great Plains, and the West were settled and when railroads opened up the nation. Running on steam, the old locomotives needed a windmill providing water for the westward expansion. (the machines pumped underground water to the surface.)
From 1860 to the 1920s, there were 78 windmill-producing companies within an 80-mile radius of Kendallville, including the prominent Flint & Walling Manufacturing Co. The company was founded in Kendallville in 1866 and still makes water system products there.
“Early windmills were made of wood, and there was a good source of hardwood here,” says C. Russell Baker, one of the founding members of the Ken-dallville Windmill Museum and Historical Society. “A lot of the people who migrated to this area had backgrounds in mechanics so it seemed natural that they build windmills.”
When electricity and other modern conveniences came along, many windmills were left by the wayside. They fell into disrepair, tumbled to the ground, some were used for scrap parts or firewood. About a decade ago, Baker decided some of the remaining windmills needed to be preserved. He enlisted the help of townspeople and other windmill enthusiasts, and soon the Mid-America Windmill Museum was born.
“When I went to the first meeting, I thought they’d never get this idea off the ground,” says Galen Swogger, a Kendallville native and museum volunteer. “My heavens, I was really surprised at how many people are interested in windmills.”
Starting with 37 untended acres donated by the town, volunteers bushwhacked thick brush and tangles into a landscape complete with flowers, trees, and shrubs. Local Boy Scouts earned their Eagle Scout badges by laying paths and digging a pond. Old windmills were found—bought, swapped, or donated—and repaired to live again on the museum land. An 1880s barn built without nails was moved to the site, as was a handmade covered bridge. Benches were dotted here and there to welcome folks to sit, listen, and enjoy.
Every summer, the story of the windmill is celebrated at the Windmill Festival, which is scheduled June 28-30 this year. The only known operational museum of its kind in the United States, the Mid-America Windmill Museum plays host to visitors from around the nation who enjoy the sights and sound of a machine from a bygone era.
“My grandpa had one on his farm,” says Jeff Zody, taking a break from helping erect a replica of a 17th-century windmill at the museum. “I think windmills bring back memories for a lot of people.”