Tilting at Windmills
What is it about Windmills that captivates the imagination? Are we fascinated at harnessing an invisible power? Do the spinning vanes lull us into a sweet hypnosis? Are we nostalgic for childhood fairy tales with tulips and wooden shoes? Is there a connection to a deep past when these machines performed life-giving tasks like grinding grain and pumping water? Old agricultural wind pumps near my home in thickly settled Connecticut may suggest a languishing reminder of simpler, more rural times, but the rise of giant pinwheels to spin electric turbines has thrust windmills into contemporary controversy. Tilting at windmills no longer seems as quixotic as it once did.
Driving a narrow road through a scenic precinct of Fairfield, about fifty miles from New York City, I hit the brakes hard when an eighty-foot-tall octagonal tower sheathed in fishtail shingles came suddenly into view. Situated at the pavement’s edge in a neighborhood dominated by large, historic homes and sprawling lawns, I got out and let the structure carry my eye upward to a dizzying blue sky dotted with fleecy cumulus clouds. Although the rotating vanes (or sails in technical lingo) were long gone, a small hand painted sign announced the presence of the Bronson Windmill, built in 1894. Later I learned that it was erected to supply water to a dairy farm and substantial mansion. A large water tank was within the tower and a cistern beneath it. Although windmills were once familiar sights in the area, this was the last one standing in Fairfield.
Save for my frequent mini golfing forays, where cute Dutch style models are a standard feature, I hadn’t given much thought to windmills. But having seen the Bronson tower, I was suddenly fascinated with these once essential engineering marvels. Frankly, I was obsessed.
Windmills of Landscape and Imagination
Although not common, once I started looking I began seeing windmills in various states of repair close to home where I’d never noticed them before. Metal truss models like the one at Ives Farm in Cheshire are not that unusual. It took a bit more sleuthing to spot the enclosed wooden tower on the former Simon estate in Bantam or the squat stone one in a rural area of Litchfield because the vanes were long gone. Such structures are often fitted up for storage or other uses.
Conversion of wind energy into rotational power dates to antiquity, but windmills didn’t become familiar sights in England, Holland, Germany and other European countries until the twelfth century. American windmills are most often associated with the Great Plains and other arid regions where surface water is rare and supplies must be pumped from deep underground. But although windmills have never been as common in New England as elsewhere, it was Daniel Halladay, a machinist and businessman in Ellington, Connecticut who invented the first commercially viable windmill that made widespread settlement of the dry west possible. His self-governing design included a tail or rudder that enabled the device to automatically respond to changing wind directions. It also featured a centrifugal governor that adjusted the pitch of the sails, maintaining a uniform speed regardless of breeze strength or the demand for water.
Although windmills still pumping water are now rare in Connecticut, they seem to grow in public affection as symbolic icons. In addition to the ubiquitous mini golf motif, windmills are common lawn and garden ornaments in both suburban and rural areas. A windmill is the emblem of Gledhill Nursery in West Hartford, and their beautifully landscaped grounds includes a seven ton model of a Dutch style windmill, an object that long ago was positioned above the entrance of a nearby restaurant and ice cream shop.
Stratford’s Boothe Memorial Park features a small shingled windmill built in 1935. The eccentric Boothe brothers constructed it “just to have something unusual.” When holding events, they decorated the sails with 700 colored lights and let them spin in the wind.
Along the Connecticut River in Essex is a shingled windmill that was built as an 840 square-foot, three bedroom house in 1967. Featuring four vanes and a bright blue door, a 2015 online write-up called the structure “majestic and romantic,” with an asking price of $1.85 million. Of course, the windmill experience can be had for much less. Amazon lists a host of windmill products from cookies to books, Mylar pinwheels to clocks, bells, and lamps.
My wife Mary and I recently had dinner at the Windmill restaurant in Stratford, a neighborhood tavern at a street intersection in a residential area. Established in 1934, the place is named for a water pumping windmill that once stood on a long gone farm across the street. The one story brick building with glass block windows includes a windmill over the main doorway straddling the corner. The spacious interior has exposed brick and hardwood floors. Our Wiener Schnitzel and salad were hearty and delicious, but the best part was the friendly regulars who traded stories with the staff and invited us into the banter.
After years of driving west on U.S. Route 44 toward Norfolk and seeing little else but forested hills on the horizon, it’s been startling these past few years to watch twin white wind turbines whose blades reach nearly 500 feet into the sky slowly rotate in the distance. Some people think they have a stark, streamlined, technological beauty while others find them intrusive on the region’s natural beauty. Windmills in my corner of the world have for decades been largely relegated to a sleepy nostalgia evoking a bucolic past. But, with the rise of interest in renewable energy and technological improvements to wind turbines, these twenty-first century electric generators have become lighting rods of contemporary controversy.
Connecticut is densely populated and not the windiest place, so it’s unlikely that our landscape will support the large wind farms found elsewhere. But it’s also improbable that these first two 2.5 megawatt generators (under ideal wind conditions) are the last. Among the issues are noise, shadow flicker (intermittent shadows created by rotating blades), visual impacts, and the potential damage to natural resources that any development raises. The issues are complex, technical, political, aesthetic, and impassioned. Here’s where a global renewable energy strategy crashes into the need to protect signature local landscapes.
The Presence of the Past
Not long ago I found myself climbing a rectangular wooden staircase in the obelisk-shaped tower of a windmill built in 1936. The steps wound around the central riser pipes encased in wood. As I cut through spider webs on my ascent, the slightly sweet compost-like odor of dry wood and dust wafted up to me. It felt much like being inside a lighthouse. I marveled at the shingled structure’s interior steel armature reinforcing wooden beams.
The seventy-three-foot-tall windmill was erected to provide water to the Harwinton farm retreat of J. Henry Roraback, a businessman and Republican political powerhouse during the first third of the twentieth century. Now owned by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as a part of a wildlife area, the windmill underwent restoration in 1994. Though the pump no longer operates and the structure is again in need of work, it may be the best preserved and most substantial of all the state’s antique windmills.
At about 40 feet, a door opened onto a two tiered balcony, the upper level of which wraps the base of a round 10,000 gallon water tank on top of which are the wind vanes. The view was breathtaking with a white farmhouse and red barns immediately below, and rolling tree covered hills beyond to the horizon. I felt as if I were on the bridge of a ship gazing out at a deep green sea of rough swells. But even more invigorating than the view, was to be atop this marvel of engineering that left me with the delightfully eerie feeling of having one foot in the past and the other in the present.
Blowing in the Wind
In little more than a decade, the image of wind power has gone from quaint to futuristic. The descendants of old-timey storybook windmills now implicate critical environmental and economic choices. Flashpoints for significant decisions about the future, they leave many important questions blowing in the wind.