HOPEDALE — Sixteenth-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ fictional knight-errant Don Quixote famously tilted at windmills, with less than inspiring results. Present-day Hopedale native John Durdle prefers to collect them. The collection at his home consists of approximately 75 makes and models of windmills, some of which he has restored and some of which are in various states of disrepair.
“I’ve been interested in windmills all of my life,” Durdle said. “There’s something mesmerizing about watching those wheels go around.”
Durdle largely credits his fascination with windmills to his German heritage. His mother’s family, he explained, came from Ostfriesland, or East Frisia. Like the neighboring Netherlands, much of Ostfriesland lies below sea level. Windmills were an agricultural necessity in the region, needed to continuously pump water out of the farmland to prevent flooding.
Windmills are not only part of Durdle’s own German heritage, but also an important part of Illinois’ past. “At one time, there were a lot of windmills manufactured here in Illinois. Batavia, about 30 miles west of Chicago, was the windmill capital of the world at one time,” said Durdle. “There were three major factories there within a city block of one another. There were also two factories in Freeport, and Elgin had a big factory.”
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1870s, Durdle added, facilitated transportation of Illinois-manufactured windmills to farms in the newly-settled West. “That’s where we sent most of the windmills built here, when we didn’t use them locally. Illinois sent big windmills, 20 feet across, to the arid areas of the Southwest,” he said. “When you had to pump deep into the ground for water, you needed bigger wheels. Most of the windmills in my collection are eight to ten feet, and I’ve also got some six-footers.”
By the late 1930s, the growing availability of electricity to rural areas began to phase out windmills, for the simple reason that throwing a switch to pump water at any time of the day or night was more convenient than waiting for the wind to blow. World War II marked the end of Illinois’ heyday as a windmill manufacturing center. “Windmill usage was declining, because electricity was coming in,” said Durdle. “When the war started, many of the windmill factories started producing things for the war effort. Also, a lot of windmills were dismantled during World War II scrap drives.”
Durdle, who has been collecting windmills for about 35 years, acquired most of his pieces at windmill trade fairs around the country. “Most of the windmills in my collection came from trade fairs out west, but were built here in Illinois. Every June, people interested in farm windmills come together to buy parts or sell parts of trade parts or just talk about windmills,” said Durdle.
The location of the International Windmillers Trade Fair, at which Durdle is a regular attendee, varies. Last year’s trade fair was held in Poteet, Texas, and Kendallville, Ind., site of the Mid-America Windmill Museum, will host the 2017 gathering. Durdle has already reserved his room for the event. In the meantime, he is exploring the possibility of a windmill museum in Illinois.
“I’d like to find someone who would be interested in my collection for the start of a windmill museum. I would like it be in Illinois, but that doesn’t mean it would absolutely happen that way.” Durdle said. “I’d be interested in working with anyone who would want to set up such a museum and, if the circumstances were workable, I’d consider donating my collection.”
About 15 of Durdle’s windmills are wooden-wheeled, while the rest have wheels made of galvanized steel. About a dozen of his wooden-wheeled windmills are in need of maintenance, and he is seeking assistance to restore them to working order.
“I have the lumber, the ironwork and I the know-how for the projects, but I haven’t had the time,” Durdle explained. “I’d like to find someone who has the time and the willingness to help out.”
Durdle will present a PowerPoint program on windmills Thursday, April 13, at 7 p.m. at a meeting of the Woodford County Historical Society at the Roanoke Park Community Building in Roanoke.