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Iconic windmills kept farms watered

Then and Now: An ad on Page 37 of the May 4, 1929, issue of Nebraska Farmer touts a legendary windmill manufacturer on the Plains.

Curt Arens

February 9, 2024

3 Min Read
Windmill in field
SYMBOL OF THE PLAINS: Windmills such as this one have been used for nearly a century and a half, dotting pastures and farmsteads across the Plains to keep livestock and fields watered. Curt Arens

Dempster is not the only Nebraska-based windmill manufacturer, but it is one of the most widely known.

Not that long ago, you could see windmills dotting pastures in almost every corner of the state, filling livestock water tanks and often pumping water for farmsteads. In many sections of the state, that is still the case.

Dempster was founded by Charles Brackett Dempster, who purchased a small windmill and pump shop in Beatrice, Neb., in 1878, and started up in the windmill business. At first, the windmills he was selling were purchased from a manufacturer, but over time, Dempster realized that he could produce them himself.

Solid wheel

With the original wooden Dempster Solid Wheel windmill, produced beginning in 1885, Dempster built what turned into a windmill empire. His early steel windmill, the Queen City, was first manufactured in 1892 and was available with an 8-foot wheel. By 1929, Dempster was selling its self-oiling models.

That year, Dempster placed an ad in the May 4 issue of Nebraska Farmer, marketing its windmills along with the Dempster Deep Well Pump with “sufficient capacity for the average house or farm.” It could be used with electricity or engine drive, and if it were installed with underground discharge, it would not freeze, the ad says.

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Farm Progress - ad for a deep well pump, manufactured by Dempster, ran on page 37 in the May 4, 1929 issue of Nebraska Farmer

This was a move to a more modern water system for the farmstead, Dempster said.

“If you use a windmill, you can have a modern, automatic water system by installing a Dempster Underground Force Pump in connection with a Pneumatic Supply Tank,” the ad said. “This specially designed pump forces air, or air and water, into the supply tank and automatically turns the windmill off and on as the pressure in the tank rises and falls.”

Known for innovating

This was quite an innovation back in 1929. But innovation was nothing new for the Dempster Co. Through the 1920s, the company was producing vaneless sectional wheels, metal wheels and some solid wheels as well.

But self-oiling windmills were gaining steam in the marketplace because they reduced maintenance issues. Dempster’s self-oiling windmills had a gearbox that was enclosed away from the weather with an oil bath that kept the gears lubricated as they moved.

The first self-oiling windmill was the No. 11, but the most popular and bestselling windmill ever made by the company was the No. 12 Annu-Oiled model, which was made beginning in 1925, all the way through 1984. The last Dempster windmill model was the No. 12B Annu-Oiled, made beginning in 1982 through 2009.

While the old steel windmills have survived the test of time on the Plains, they continue to do good service in pastures across the country, pumping water in areas where there is no electric power nearby. For many, the windmill stands as an iconic symbol of the inventive and self-reliant nature of settlers and their descendants on the Plains.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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