American Wind Power Center and Museum
Renewable energy may be chic, but that isn't why America merits a windmill museum. It's because of Billie Wolfe, a Texas home economics teacher. She liked old windmills, and thought they deserved a museum because prairie settlers couldn't have survived without them. "The First Lady of the Windmill" died in 1997, months before the museum opened, and years before windmills revived as one of America's desperate post-oil hopes -- as wind turbines.
The American Wind Power Center displays its own working wind turbine (built 2005), the first within a U.S. city limit. It towers over dozens of older windmills scattered across the museum grounds, their wheels rhythmically creaking in the West Texas breeze (Lubbock is one of the windiest cities in the U.S.).
For farmers and ranchers, a museum of old wind machines evokes nostalgic feelings for a squeaking "prairie pinwheel" out by the barn. For everyone else, a creaking windmill is a cinematic device that suggests an imminent attack by aliens or monsters.
This impression is heightened in the museum's giant room of windmills, over 100 of them, packed blade-to-blade in a kind of Steampunk vision of mechanical single-mindedness. The biggest wheels are 25 feet across, and you're right next to them. We wondered if a breeze through the building might set the blades in motion, turning the museum into a human slice-and-dice. Tanya Meadows, the museum's PR director, reassured us. "A wind that big would rip the roof off," she said, implying that windmills would be the least of our concerns.
The names on important windmill brands blur to the unschooled: Aermotor, Steel Star, Wonder Mill, Flying Dutchman. There are colorful wooden windmills and practical steel windmills, windmills with collapsible blades, windmills with directional tails, railroad windmills, industrial windmills, iron bucket windmills, freakish home-built windmills with nicknames such as "merry-go-round" and "battle ax."
The museum even exhibits a haunted windmill, the last remaining "twin-wheel" in existence, which had a reputation for killing more than the usual share of windmill workers. "A big gust of wind comes along, spins it around, knocks you off the tower," explained Tanya.
A side room contains the world's largest windmill mural, 34 feet high and 172 feet long. A 15-minute recorded narration tells its story, augmented with dramatic lighting and sound effects. It took over two years to complete, showcases lots of windmills in an old-timey Texas setting, and doesn't include any tornadoes.
Museum development director Glenn Patton walked us outside to look at the huge, turbine. With every turn of the blade it slowly generates energy and amortizes its hefty installation cost. Glenn regaled us with details about its hydraulics and yaw, but what we wanted to know was how many rungs were in the ladder to the top. Glenn didn't know, but conceded that he'd been asked that question "about a million times." Visitors who complete the museum's Windsmith Academy (held during two days every three months) get a chance to climb 17 stories straight up.
The museum displays a couple of barbed wire bird nests, found on windmills on the treeless prairie. As for live birds, Glenn told us that they haven't been bothered by the 160+ windmills at the museum -- not even the turbine. "They just go around it," he said. "If you've ever been in a car that hit a bird, you've killed more than we have."
For $3,500 you can purchase a new, full-size windmill in the American Wind Power Center gift shop, 19 feet tall. It's the largest souvenir we've ever encountered.