Jim Robeson and Dennis Gough are on a mission to find windmills. But unlike the fictional hero Don Quixote, who famously tried to joust with the giants, their mission is to preserve and restore the vintage structures.
The friends, who live down the road from each other in Nokesville, have acquired about a dozen windmills in the past six years. Their growing passion has taken them across the country to trade fairs and on shorter “windmill trips.” They hope to inspire others to appreciate and, ideally, restore and display the lofty structures.
The windmills they favor are the kind commonly seen in the American Midwest, standing 30 to 40 feet above the ground with relatively small blades — not the long-bladed, European-style structures that were used for milling grain.
“When you look at television and you see [a scene] of a farm, you’ll see a silo and a windmill, and you just subconsciously think, ‘Oh, a farm,’ ” Robeson said. “It’s an icon.”
The American-style windmills were used for pumping water before the introduction of electricity or in places that weren’t on the electrical grid, Robeson said. They enabled people to settle in areas distant from creeks, rivers and other sources of water.
“Most of the windmills are in the Midwest, because as people [from] the East Coast moved west, they needed water,” Robeson said. “It was one of the three key inventions . . . that allowed people to move west: barbed wire, Colt revolvers and the windmill. They were able to give you a source of water [and] protect yourself and then have barbed wire for your fence.”
Gough, 52, said windmills were used for pumping water in Northern Virginia, too.
“They were up [here] years ago, before they had power,” Gough said. “Everybody got power back in the ’30s, so the windmills just sat there.” Sometimes he still finds old windmills that have fallen down and lie rusting in the weeds.
The heyday of the American windmill was between the Civil War and World War I, Robeson said. By World War II, most were no longer used, and the government needed scrap metal.
Robeson, 73, purchased his first windmill in the 1970s for $50. But it wasn’t supported well and blew over, he said.
It wasn’t until 2009, shortly after he retired, that Robeson’s interest in windmills began to grow into a passion. He had hired Gough, a general contractor, to replace some windows in his home and asked whether he knew anyone who could fix the windmill.
Gough offered to give it a try. He figured out how it worked and ordered parts. Before long, Robeson’s windmill was standing again, whirring in the breeze.
“After Dennis fixed [my] windmill, my interest in windmills went up big time,” Robeson said. Through the Internet, he learned about an annual international windmill trade fair. He and his wife attended one in York, Neb., in 2010 and loved it, he said.
Finding parts can be a challenge, Gough said, particularly for models that haven’t been produced for decades. The trade fairs are useful for meeting people who know where to get parts, Robeson said.
Sometimes Robeson and Gough go out driving, looking for windmills.
“We would like to preserve and restore as many as we can before we leave this Earth, to pass on to the next generations,” Robeson said. “If we can find some around here that are salvageable, we’d like to salvage them and put them up.
“I guess you could say I’m addicted,” Robeson added with a sheepish smile as he opened the door to his barn, revealing several antique windmills in varying stages of restoration.
He also has two windmills that rise high above his property, and another that stands low to the ground. Gough has three on his property. They rotate to face the wind, which spins them swiftly and smoothly, but they no longer pump water, Robeson said.
“I just love the appearance, especially when I’m sitting on the porch and I watch them dancing in the wind,” Robeson said. “It’s just wonderful, hypnotic.”