Monday, December 17, 2012
Windmill Folk Art
QUESTION: My mom has had an unusual sculpture in her garden for some years now. It’s a cast-iron rooster that looks like it may have been painted at one time. The thing is darn heavy, so no one has moved it for a long time. It seems to be attached to a concrete block. Can you tell me anything about it?
ANSWER: It sounds like your mom has a windmill counterbalance weight in her garden. If it weren’t for their appeal as folk art, these delightful oddies probably wouldn’t be as highly collectible as they are today. The windmill weight is a key component of the vaneless windmill produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Counterbalance weights were part of a short-lived but stylish variation of tail technology in windmill production. The Halladay Standard windmill, manufactured by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Company (USWE) of Batavia, Illinois, was the first manufacturer to employ a patented self-regulating wheel that would place itself in or out of sail depending on the strength of the wind. This “folding” mill was first developed in 1854 with a wooden vane that attached to a wooden tail.
In the 1880s, USWE introduced a vaneless version of the Halladay Standard. The Vaneless Standard utilized a star-shaped counterbalance weight instead of a tail. The company produced this mill until 1916 while other companies produced their own versions with different styles of weights into the 1930s. Generally, windmill manufacturers only used counterbalance weights on folding wheel windmills. When electricity came to the re-mote areas of the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, windmills became obsolete.
Windmill makers cast the iron weights in the form of horses, roosters, bulls, squirrels, or rabbits. These
weights measure from 9 to 18 inches high and from 6 to 12 inches wide. And they can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Lighter ones, meant to be filled with scrap metal, were hollow cast. The bigger the mill, the heavier the weight. It all depended on the diameter of the wheel.
Although many collectors seek them out as folk art, they’re not really because they weren’t made in limited quantities by untutored rural or small-town craftsmen. Instead, factory workers cast them by the thousands. The Duplex Open Wheel Mill Company of Superior, Wisconsin, and an Elgin, Illinois, firm that produced the Hummer Windmill led the nation in windmill production.
Once known as the Windmill Capital of the World, Batavia, Illinois, was home to six windmill manufacturers—Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia Wind Mill Co., Challenge Co., Danforth Co., Snow Manufacturing Co., and U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.
Weights not only served as a counterbalance but also as a marketing device, often identifying the mill’s manufacturer with an embossed name someplace on it. But basically, the windmill weight just kept the wheel directed into the wind and prevented tower from tipping over.
What distinguishes one weight from another is its shape. Most windmill manufacturers produced weights in their own foundries. Animal shapes were the most common, but weights also represented letters of the alphabet, horseshoes, celestial bodies and spear tips. The Elgin Windmill Company offered the biggest selection of animals, including roosters, chickens and squirrels. Other companies used the horse, bull, eagle or buffalo for weights. Several, like the Elgin squirrel, rooster and chicken, came in various sizes, tailored to the wheel’s size.
Most weights sat atop a base plate, part of a box or ball often made of tin, cast iron or galvanized metal. Others attached directly to an iron bar. The box, plate or ball then attached to a wood beam extending from the windmill engine. Most weights have lost their bases, mostly due to falls. A sudden fall from a 60-foot tower could break off pieces of the weight, such as a horse’s tail or a rooster’s comb.
Of all the windmill weights out there, the Dempster horse and the Elgin rooster are the most reproduced pieces. Since weights are rare and expensive, it’s often difficult to tell an authentic weight from a reproduction.
In recent years prices for windmill weights have increased from $200 to over $1000 for especially unique ones in good condition. Weights should show traces of rust and pitting after having been exposed to weather over the years. Repainting them drastically reduces their value. However, the value of a windmill weight increases if its paint is 50 to 75 years old and shows wear from the weather.