Nebraska craftsman’s windmill restoration career nears its end

Farm Forum

PENDER, Neb. — Age-old agriculture practices continue to fade into our memories, often kept alive by those old enough to remember how things were once done.

They remember when the term horsepower applied to actual horses and when much of the work was done by hand or with simple tractors and pieces of equipment.

And the rural horizon was interrupted by the spinning wheels of the windmills that brought life-giving water out of the ground for both humans and livestock.

Sioux City Journal reported that for around 30 years, Marvin Baker has brought windmills back to life. Amidst the saws, drills and piles of wood shavings that fill his garage, replicas of machines that date back to the 1800s have taken shape.

Since he retired from farming in the 1980s, his creations, as well as restorations, have brought back the days when the wind, not a faucet, furnished a family’s water.

“I had given up farming, and I needed a hobby,” Baker said.

His nephew, Jeff Steinhoff, of Griswold, Iowa, worked on them. Baker thought it looked like a neat hobby to take up.

“He had them up, and I thought they looked pretty nice,” Baker said. “He got me started on them.”

Baker looked up the old wooden models — steel was too hard to work with, he decided. He found photos of old Dempster No. 3 and No. 4 models, the Baker L model. He set to work building his own patterns and forms to re-create these machines or restore broken ones. He learned just how to cut the flexible cypress wood for the blades, how to attach them at the right angle to cross pieces, then paint and join sections of blades into heads that open and close to catch the wind.

“I would take pictures at trade fairs and figure out how to build them,” Baker said. “You learn as you go along.”

Baker built a few and put them in the yard in front of his rural Pender home. It turned out other people thought they looked pretty nice, too.

“I used to have cars go by,” Baker said. “They wouldn’t stop in, but they’d get out and take pictures.”

He’s built windmills for people in northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa. His windmills have gone to Texas and New Hampshire. Those attention-grabbers that were once in his yard were sold a few years ago to Leonard Gill, who displays them in a collection at his landfill along U.S. Highway 20 near Jackson, Nebraska. Baker has worked on about 20 of the windmills in that collection, and he’s currently making new heads to replace ones that have broken over the years.

Baker doesn’t restore the pumps and iron workings, although some windmill owners have chosen to do that on their own. For the most part, Baker’s windmills spin in the breeze, reminders of days gone by. People buy them “just to look at, I guess,” he said.

Baker understands.

“I like to see them go up, too.”

Baker’s slowed down some over the years. He quit building the windmill towers when the heavy lumber became too much for him to handle.

Like the windmills, one more expert who knows how to build them, how to work with them, will soon cease working.

At age 86, Baker said his health doesn’t allow him to work as well as he once did. He’ll probably finish the orders he has and then retire from his hobby.

“It’s kind of a business. I wouldn’t mind selling it to someone, but there’s not much of a call for it,” he said.

Just as there’s not much of a call, or need, for windmills, though some ranchers still depend on them.

They may not be vital to life in rural parts anymore, but craftsmen like Baker have proven a vital link between past and present.

If not for them, our history would blow away in the wind.