Remembering the Mighty Windmill

History, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on February 3, 2002

On the Oklahoma plains, a lone visitor listens intently to a vanishing prairie song—the wailing of a churning windmill, whose rotation evokes a bygone day when windmills once ruled the prairies.

“It’s music to my ears,” says Marvin Stinson of Shattuck (pop. 1,274). “Without them, this country couldn’t have been settled.”

The former windmill repairman tunes into the sounds every time he visits the Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park, an outdoor museum he helped establish in 1994. The museum displays 40 restored machines that once lifted water from below the earth for early day homesteaders. Irrigation would have been impossible otherwise on land with no standing water.

“I don’t think most people know just how important windmills were to this country,” Stinson says. “There wasn’t a farm that didn’t have a windmill in those early days.”

But few working windmills dot the landscape today.

The museum windmills—some with wooden wheels, some with steel—range in height from just 5 feet to 18 feet. The museum includes everything from a 1908 Dempster No. 9 to an 1860 regular-pattern Eclipse, windmills that commonly provided water for homesteaders, ranchers, and railroads.

“These windmills changed settlers’ lives completely,” Stinson says. “The advent of the windmill for them was like today’s family getting a new Cadillac car.

“The windmills lifted the necessary water to help disperse their livestock (each pasture had its own windmill-fed watering hole), water their gardens, and a whole lot more before electricity came along.”

The history intrigues John McCornack, a windmill enthusiast and Shattuck museum visitor. The Yukon, Okla., native understands why people travel from all over the United States to see the prairie giants.

“They’re symbols of our pioneers,” McCornack says. “Windmills teach us a lot about our rural heritage.”

Peggy Lash of Custer City, Okla., agrees. She knew little about windmills until she visited Shattuck.

“When I stood there and looked at all those windmills, I couldn’t help but think about all the people who came before us,” Lash says. “I felt as though I had been taken back in time and was right there with them.”

That is exactly what Stinson hoped would happen when he began dreaming of a windmill museum. After he expressed his idea to a local newspaper, Phyllis Ballew—a local artist and windmill lover—rallied the town behind Stinson’s vision.

“There was an outpouring of donations and volunteers once they knew what we were trying to do,’’ she says, adding the town felt the windmills were “an important part of our heritage.’’

Stinson certainly felt that way. His interest in windmills began more than 50 years ago, when he designed a windmill for his family. That began his career as a windmill repairman and restorer.

Stinson spent three and one-half years restoring and repairing windmills to place in the park. He logged many long hours, earning only $25 per day plus meals.

“My friend and I were setting windmills in 107-degree heat one day,” Stinson says. “I looked at him and said ‘You know, we don’t have to be doing this.’”

The museum has a half-dugout “soddy,” a sod house like those of early settlers. A red granite wall engraved with names of early settlers includes a dedication to Stinson for his hard work in establishing the museum.

“Texas born, Oklahoma raised … Just the right combination to become an ol’ windmiller,” the inscription reads.

Stinson appreciates the recognition but focuses on preserving the past.

“If we don’t preserve these windmills, we’ll lose a piece of our history forever,” he says. “The windmills have made us who we are today.”