Oklahoma Stories

History in the wind

By Jocelyn Pedersen September 2018

Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park

Gentle breezes across the Oklahoma prairie turn paddles and move vanes on giant windmills that groan as the air swirls past. Rain or shine, 51 windmills of various sizes stand sentry at the 4-acre Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park located at the junction of state highways 283 and 13 in northwest Oklahoma.  

No two windmills at the park are alike. The smallest is a 5-foot Star Zephyr and the largest is the 18-foot Samson. Some have solid wooden turning wheels and others have folding wooden wheels. Still others are steel. But the common denominator is that they have all lifted water from the ground for homesteaders’ farms and cattle. Each operating antique has been restored and raised into position thanks to careful maintenance provided by townspeople and volunteers like Doug Schoenhals, president of the park’s board of directors, who work on them.

“When wood needs to be replaced, it’s a major job,” Schoenhals said of five wooden windmills outside. Some paddles acquired through maintenance end up in the mercantile and make an appearance for creative folks to repurpose. 

Carol King, who said she enjoys volunteering at the museum, indicated that most visitors enjoy the park. Many volunteers helped to get the park up and running including windmill enthusiasts from the International Windmiller’s Trade Fair that draws windmillers from across the United States and Canada. Together, they help each other with windmill questions, buying, selling and trading parts, and sharing knowledge and elbow grease. The last week of September each year, people from all over the U.S. come to Shattuck for a week of working on and maintaining windmills at the museum because the job is too large for the few area volunteers. 

“It’s kind of like old home week when you go to the trade fair,” Sue Schoenhals, gift shop manager said. “Everyone sees each other and it’s kind of like family.” Speaking to the buying, selling and trading that goes on at the fair, she added, “Every windmiller has a pile of parts they might not use, but somebody else will.”

On either side of the park’s red granite entrance stand brick walls with names of museum donors and family pioneers who arrived in the area as far back as 1883. Some still have descendants in the area. 

Early settlers typically lived in dugout homes because they couldn’t find enough trees for lumber. To commemorate this fact, caliche stonework from a former dugout home was moved and rebuilt at the Windmill Museum. Furnished with a small iron stove, table and quilt-covered bed, the home demonstrates how its owners might have lived in 1900. 

Later, when the railroad brought lumber, settlers typically built story-and-a-half farmhouses much like the one that was moved from 4 miles south of town to the museum grounds. Even the railroad utilized windmill technology. Water stations were built every 7 miles along the rail track to serve as the pumps for loading water onto steam-powered trains. If the wind wasn’t blowing at a particular stop, it was only 7 miles to the next one. 

Touring the grounds with Doug Schoenhals is a fascinating trip through windmill history as he explains windmills and their workings including self-regulating varieties, fold-up wheels, vanes, control mechanisms to prevent flat-wheeled windmills from flying apart in high winds, the wheel-to-pump ratio of each, and more. In short, the harder the wind blows, the faster the mill turns. 

“What’s amazing is they came up with a complicated design first,” Schoenhals said. “Later they figured out to move the wheel out of the wind using the vane.”

Historic or modern, the windmill concept is the same: to pump water or create electricity. Back in the day, water wheels placed across streams or tiny windmills atop houses, like the one at the park, were used to create electricity for farm owners. Now, Northwestern Electric Cooperative out of Woodward, Oklahoma, serves rural areas, but not the city proper. 

A nine-member board oversees the Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park which is run entirely by volunteers including Windmill Friends who help maintain the park. To learn more about the windmill museum, visit www.shattuckwindmillmuseum.org/. 

Category: Oklahoma Stories

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