Tools from the Nation's Past: Finding and Restoring a Wind Charger

For people who want to generate their own electricity, locating an old, abandoned, but still serviceable wind charger on a remote Great Plains farm is a treasure hunt.

| March/April 1983

  • wind charger - water pumping windmills
    Old water-pumping windmills are still abundant, but they're not what you're looking for
    Paul Gipe and Carl Judy
  • wind charger - restored Paris-Dunn generator
    This is a rebuilt Parris-Dunn of pre-REA days. The design has recently been reintroduced by Vermont's Northwind Power Company.
    Paul Gipe and Carl Judy
  • wind charger - restored Jacobs generator on tower
    If Wincharger was the Chevrolet, here's the "Cadillac": a reliable old Jacobs.
    Paul Gipe and Carl Judy
  • wind charger - Wincharger on tower
    A Wincharger, the "Chevrolet" of wind chargers, came in both two- and four-blade models. This is a unit the author found and restored.
    Photo by Paul Gipe and Carl Judy

  • wind charger - water pumping windmills
  • wind charger - restored Paris-Dunn generator
  • wind charger - restored Jacobs generator on tower
  • wind charger - Wincharger on tower

There's been a lot of talk (some of it, unfortunately, quite loose) about restoring old wind generators, most notably the Jacobs models that achieved some fame prior to the formation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. Most such discussions, however, fail to mention where to find a rebuildable machine in the first place. (After all, not everyone is fortunate enough to have an old Jacobs sitting out in the barn gathering dust!)

However, if you happen to be driving across the Great Plains, you may well have a chance to take possession of a piece of Americana — a beautiful, potentially functional wind charger. And the tips we've garnered from our experience in the used wind machine business will help prevent you from getting ripped off in the process.

Why They’re There

The winds that sweep down out of the Rockies and across the Great Plains are notorious. Their power often rakes the rich topsoil from the earth, kicks it skyward, and carries it across the continent, where it rains down on distant eastern cities.

But for a few years, spanning the dark days of the Depression, this wind was occasionally put to work. It helped connect far-flung farmers and ranchers with the outside world as they and their families huddled around crackly-sounding Philco radios, to find reassurance in the "fireside chats" of Franklin Roosevelt and entertainment in the verbal antics of Fred Allen and Jack Benny.

Rural folks, you see, could get lighting from the traditional kerosene lamps, and modern food storage from propane refrigerators, but radios depended on the constant flow of electrons that many people now take for granted.

And during the Depression, Great Plains homesteads had access to electrical power only through the use of batteries or on-site generation. Storage batteries ran down, though, and had to be taken into town for recharging, a procedure which often cost more money and time than country folk had to spare in those hard years. Of course, gasoline-powered generators were available, but fuel prices put them out of reach of all but the most prosperous individuals. Therefore it was mass-produced wind generators, dotting the landscape with vanes and towers, that created most of the electricity used in remote areas of the Plains.

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