April 8, 2014 Updated: April 8, 2014 at 10:36 am
I often admire the windmills that sprout from the prairie, standing majestically in pastures and yards.
I had a windmill when I lived in town - a flimsy, 6-foot-tall one that was a Christmas present from my wife and quickly fell apart. The ones in the country are the real deal - towering symbols of the Old West.
Windmills were key to development of the arid West, converting wind energy to mechanical energy to pump water from underground in the days before electric motors.
"From what I've read, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to settle the West without windmills," said Steve Barnhart, owner and president of Falcon-based Barnhart Pump Co. "They played a big part in railroads (providing water for steam locomotives) and towns and, of course, on ranches and farms."
Barnhart Pump Co. installs and services windmills, including maintaining windmills on two of the largest cattle operations in El Paso County. Windmills may not be as central to the landscape these days - the company's website notes that windmill technicians are becoming more and more scarce - but they're not just spinning ghosts of the past either, Barnhart says. Plenty of ranchers still rely on them to provide water for livestock where electric lines don't reach, even with growing competition from newer technology such as solar pumps.
While there are only a few U.S. companies left that manufacture windmills, Barnhart said, "there are a lot of windmills still in service. I have no idea how many hundreds of windmills we still work on."
While the company's website advertises functional and decorative windmills, the decorative ones are identical to the ones used to pump water. With the economy still struggling in recent years, "we don't do much with decorative," Barnhart said. If I wanted to erect one on our 5 acres, he said, I should expect to pay $4,000 or more.
What happens with a working windmill, I asked, if the wind isn't blowing? "If it's not windy, they don't pump," he said. "But the wind almost always blows."
As someone living in the open spaces of the country, I can testify to the truthfulness of that statement. Besides, just as I don't have a hose always running water to our tank for our horse and mule, there's no need for pump activity to be constant. Plus, Barnhart said, ranchers usually have a way to haul water in if there is an extended period of calm or if a windmill is out of commission for a time.
To learn more, Barnhart suggested I visit the local king of windmills - Ray Balsick, who restores and collects old windmills. He has about 30 on his land in Falcon, just off U.S. 24 near the Meadow Lake Airport. It's like an alien landscape, with squeaking, creaking, wood and metal creations reaching for the sky.
They come, Balsick told me, from all over the country; his oldest one, which he's working on now, dates to the 1870s. Resurrecting a windmill that's a century or more old is no easy task; you can't go to the local hardware store for a part, so Balsick has to make missing parts or look to other collectors.
His Stonehenge of windmills draws passers-by on a regular basis - "every day," he said. But for him, "it's just a hobby," he said, adding that he's one of "a couple hundred crazy old men around the country who like to restore them and put them up and so forth."
Many of those "crazy old men" will gather in Calhan in a few months. The 26th annual International Windmillers' Trade Fair will be June 10-12 in Calhan, drawing windmill enthusiasts from across the country and elsewhere. The Balsick family, which has a ranch in Calhan, is hosting this year's trade fair.
The fair is held in a different location each year, said Balsick's son, Adam. Last year's was in El Dorado, Kan. The event is expected to draw 200 to 300 people, Adam said, for three days of buying, selling and trading.
"It's basically like a swap meet," he said.
Adam has a passion for windmills, too; restoring and collecting them has always been something fun that he did with his dad, he said. Adam's son, who is in college, has the bug, too. "So there are three generations of us doing it."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots.
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