Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Windmills pumped farms' water into '40s

This column first appeared in the Tribune on Sept. 24, 2001.

In 1937, only a few farms at or near Columbia's city limits had access to electrical lines. They depended on coal oil lamps and lanterns for lighting their homes and barns. In dark winter months, they milked cows by hand by lantern light. A few owned individual Delco generators. Some, including our family, had carbide gas lighting plants that powered lights for our home, milk house and barn. Windmills dotted the countryside, pumping water from drilled wells.

To most of us, the windmill is a picturesque object on a high spot near a quiet farmstead -- on the calendars that come in the mail at this time of year. To our Amish neighbors near Sturgeon, they're an important and inexpensive way to pump water. When wind turns the blades, the pump below can be put into action; the water comes out of the ground and collects in tanks for livestock or can be piped -- on a downgrade -- or carried in buckets to the home, the wash house and other outbuildings.

Many windmills stand idle, at rest since rural electricity reached out in many directions. The poles, which were equipped with the proper fixtures and dropped along our half-mile driveway financed by loans from the federal government, reached out a few miles from Columbia by the time there were rumblings of war in Europe.

Our farm was what is now El Chaparral subdivision on Route WW, and it was four miles from our home to Ninth and Broadway. Two people from the community -- Eva Hinshaw and O.D. Meyers, my dad -- are listed on the bronze plaque at Boone Electric Cooperative as being among the 12 in Boone County to most actively promote rural electricity when such a thing seemed impossible. Both have passed on now.

Electric lines reached out a few miles in several directions by 1940. Some farmers still depended on the windmill to pump their water. Others had a cistern or a "spring" of "living water" that was operated by hand with ropes and pulleys. Expensive, drilled, deep wells produced the most reliable supplies of pure water.

Milton Shanklin, a student at the University of Missouri, studied a different system that had been used on many farms: It was the filtering of pond water through a long trench filled with gravel and sand. It was discovered that the raw pond water was cutting little rivulets in the sand as impurities built up and the sand packed; the water was not being filtered.

Doctoral candidate Shanklin then designed a system that involved a concrete tank with two compartments: The one nearest the pond received "raw" pond water and filtered the water through sand that could be scraped clean periodically and could be replaced when necessary. Then the filtered water passed to the second compartment for storage until needed. A pressure pump in a utility room pulled the filtered water to our kitchen and bathroom. It was a significant change!

The university received grant money to try out his plan, but there would be two more improvements: The 10-foot-deep tank was replaced by two separate tanks, and the water was pushed through the pipe to the house instead of being pulled to ensure purity. We sacrificed our garden space and asparagus bed to allow the second system to replace the first. The result: It was the first pond water filtering and chlorinating system in the nation to be approved for use on farms from which dairy products could be sold.

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