By Chuck Preble
There are many signs to indicate location. You’re in the city when you see skyscrapers. Sailboats and surfboards are a dead giveaway the ocean is nearby. Acres of white fences, barns and windmills instantly let you know that you’re in Ramona.
All along Highway 78 are rolling hills, farms, livestock and the beauty of Ramona and the backcountry. One can also spot several windmills. An ancient one is located off Cedar Street, while newer models can be found near the Oasis Camel Dairy and at the junction of Highway 78 and Old Julian Highway.
Though not used as mills in the traditional sense, they stand as a symbol of a bygone era when homes depended on them to pump water or generate electricity. Many of these wind pumps are still functioning today, and people are beginning to view these relics in a whole new light. The wind is free, and wind pumps and turbines are still being manufactured and meeting a valuable need.
The history of wind power goes back centuries with origins in Asia. The most familiar examples are Holland’s windmills, used to grind grain. The traditional farm windmill is a little different. Windmills similar to those in Ramona came into being in the latter half of the 19th century. They were developed for livestock and agricultural use and became so popular that more that 5 million were in the United States by the 1930s.
Aermotor Windmills seem to be the most popular ones seen in Ramona. One of the first mass-produced wind systems was built in 1888 by the Aermotor Windmill Company, now located in Texas. That first year only 24 were sold.
Four years later 20,000 were sold as more and more people saw the value of having the wind work for them. The Aermotor Co. is still in business with a manufacturing facility and warehouse totaling 40,000 square feet. Replacement parts for an existing unit can be purchased. Prices have risen since 1904, when an 8-feet-circumference model cost $25.
How do these towering propellers pump water? I received a lot of information from Bennie Moon, who grew up in a home not far from Ramona.
“We had an old wind pump on the property and that’s how we got our water,” he recalled. “It filled up our 600-gallon water tank in just a day.”
A drawback to the system was that it didn’t have an automatic shut-off.
“I remember Mother telling me to get out there and turn the tail to shut it off because the winds were so high. We had no shortage of wind,” Moon chuckled.
Here is a basic description of how the wind pump works: It is placed directly above a water source, either a well or a river. For this description, we’ll use a well. A lattice tower, constructed of wood in earlier models and steel in later ones, is erected above the well. A wheel at the top contains numerous blades set on an angle so the air striking them forces the wheel to turn.
The tail acts as a rudder, pointing the blades in the right direction. This tail, when pushed horizontal to the blades, stops the wheel from turning.
The wheel connects to a gear box, which connects to a long tube called a sucker rod. This rod leads down to the water. The turning wheel operates the gear box, forcing the sucker rod up and down. At the bottom of the sucker rod is a pump. This pump cylinder, punched with numerous holes, contains a sand point, serving as a filter. The sucker rod draws water into the pump, passing it through the sand filter and locking it in with a check valve.
A leather seal at the bottom of the pump lifts and deposits the water into the hollow rod. The rod goes back down, lowering the leather seal, refilling the pump with more water for the rapidly filling rod.
As the water reaches ground level, a T-joint diverts it to a drinking trough for livestock or to a pipe irrigating a garden.
“We had several diverting pipes,” Moon said. “But the main one was on an angle going up the hill to the water tank.”
The liquid was gravity fed from the tank, providing all the water needs of the home. “This was in 1948 and I can still taste that water,” he said. “Ramona water was the best I’ve ever had.”
Wind power is one of the most economical forms of energy available and provides a clean source of power. In recent years, wind pumps and turbines have seen a sharp rise in sales. Carrying water is backbreaking work.
Moon cocked his head to one side and said, “You try carrying bucket after bucket of water from a stream to the livestock! Our wind pump changed all that. I didn’t even mind changing the leathers on the pump each year so long as I didn’t have to haul water,” he laughed.
Next time you’re driving through Ramona and into the backcountry, look around for an old wind pump. These historic symbols, reaching to the sky, are a low maintenance example of energy provided for free, as the wind in the trees.