Water, Windmills, and Wells

Water…nature’s life-force. Everyone and everything must have water. But today, a great many people are living in areas of severe drought.


Of all the things the frontier settlers needed in order to survive, the single most crucial thing was water. Without water, they couldn’t subsist, grow crops or quench their livestock’s thirst not to mention their own. Yet when arriving settlers found all the land around lakes, rivers, and streams was already taken, they were forced to move onto places without this valuable commodity.

In the 1800’s a good water source played an important role in deciding what land to buy and where to create towns. That’s why towns were settled close to a river, stream, or lake. Water had to be accessible. Without it, towns would die as people moved on, seeking that life-sustaining resource.


Terrible wars were often fought as greedy men tried to control the water. Men died in the attempt to keep water flowing to their land.

Lots of novels have been written and movies made about fights over water rights.

But it was very difficult sometimes for a farmer or rancher to obtain a good supply of water. If they didn’t have a river, stream, or lake nearby (which was hard to come by in many places) they had to dig deep into the earth, trying to tap into an underground stream. If they were lucky enough to find water just beneath the surface, they quickly lined the hole to keep the sides from caving in. They had themselves a well. They built a top over it to protect it and lowered a bucket down an open hole in the middle.


The only thing was that they had to do that every time they needed water. It could be a pain, especially for the poor frontier woman who had to have water for cooking, washing dishes and clothes and taking baths. A bucket at a time could get very tedious.

Almost every house had rain barrels sitting at the side in which to catch every precious drop of moisture that fell from the sky. Some settlers built cisterns (usually out of cement and most of time they were underground) to catch rain from a run-off. Water was and is so vital.

Rain Barrel

Sometimes the settler had to drill for water if there was no other way. He drilled pipe into the ground and prayed to strike water. Men with peach tree limbs known as “water witches” were called on to find the most likely place to drill. Those men with their peach tree limbs became the first geologists. Heaven forbid they used such a primitive method! It often failed.

Once the driller did locate water, it was only half the battle. They had to coax the water to the top. In the early years, it involved pumping it to the surface with a friction pump and lots of arm strength.

In 1854, Daniel Halliday invented the self-regulating farm wind pump and that changed the whole perspective of getting accessible water through windmill technology.


Incessant winds on the plains made it easy to get power to the mill blades. Wind power kept the blades turning which in turn pumped water to the top through a long pipe. Water emptied into a storage tank on the surface. Simple technology but really efficient. Many times the windmills dwarfed the simple sod houses. But once it was set up there was much rejoicing, especially by the farmer’s or rancher’s wife I’m sure. All the settlers had to do was dip water from the tank. No more drawing it up by rope and bucket or pumping until your arm wore to a frazzle.

Ranchers hired men who did nothing except make sure the windmills kept working. Here in the Texas Panhandle, ranchers still have windmills and continue to employ these men.

Not only were windmills used on a farm or ranch, they were very crucial to the railroads. With a steam engine’s need to take on water every four or five miles, they could place windmills wherever they needed them.

I don’t know about you, but I love windmills. I love the sound of the wind whistling through the blades and the creak of the pipe as it goes up and down. Such a beautiful sound. Fellow lovers of the technology created a wonderful windmill museum in Lubbock, Texas devoted solely to these marvels. My favorite exhibit is the one of recorded sounds of a windmill. I can stand there for hours, listening, dreaming. To me, it’s the music of the earth’s heartbeat.

I don’t even have to close my eyes to remember the times my mama and daddy took us kids fishing. We’d stop at an old windmill outside of town and dig for worms around the storage tank. We’d always get more than enough. Those were special times. So simple yet they formed the fabric of my soul.

Windmills are vanishing.

It’s sad that more and more they’re going by the wayside. My heart breaks to see windmills sitting idle in the pastures where houses once stood, remnants of someone’s hopes and dreams. Water, nature’s life-giving force.

Do you have windmill memories stored inside you?

About LindaBroday

I'm a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of western historical romance. I love stories of the old West and the people who once lived there. I haunt libraries and museums and can hang out in them for hours. To tell all the stories that are in my head would take a lifetime.


Water, Windmills, and Wells — 5 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I just finished a quick trip across the western half of the country on I-40 and saw lots of those windmills. And, yes, many were on properties with abandoned homes.

  2. My grandfather McNeal, who lived in a small village in north central Pennsylvania, had rain barrels, no car and no electricity for much of his life. He was a post Civil War baby born in 1866. Kind of amazing to me to know that. By the time I came along he had electricity, still no car, and a water pump just outside the kitchen door. Eventually, he did get water in the kitchen. The water pipe ran under the graveyard next to his house. He never owned a car in his entire life or had an inside bathroom, but he loved his home and missed it when he became ill and had to live with us in North Carolina.
    I think the people who ventured into the west to make their homes endured great hardships. But I think they probably loved their homes just like my grandfather did even though they weren’t ideal. It certainly wouldn’t have been something I would like, but everyone has their own idea of what’s wonderful.
    I like the old windmills. You mentioned so many things I didn’t know about them like all that maintenance. The way things are going as far as energy and resources, we may be seeing them again on down the road.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post, Linda…so much interesting information.

  3. I don’t remember seeing a lot of windmills around here other then for decoration. Now you rain barrels I do my grandmother had them. She also had a cister out back that we had to draw the water they used with a bucket. There was alway a trick to sinking that bucket to get a bucket of water out. If you done it enough you got really good at it.

  4. Great blog, Linda! We didn’t have a windmill on the farm I grew up on, but we did have two wells (one by the house & one by the corrals for the cattle). I remember them very fondly. They were modern, thank goodness, so no need for buckets or hand pumps!