Windmills
of the Big Bend Area

-A Hiking Tour -

by Brad Anthenat
July, 2001

 

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It has been called a place that rainbows wait for rain. In a land where ten inches of rain a year is considered normal, water is very important to human survival. The Big Bend area of west Texas is a strange and fascinating land with some interesting history.

As I was reading through a hiking book, I was surprised to find that the National Park service still keeps two windmills maintained in the Big Bend National Park. My wife I and had been wanting to go to the Big Bend for many years. We kept making plans, but for some reason or another we had to keep postponing the trip. We were finally able to make it this past summer. What better time to load up the truck and go camping in the desert of west Texas than July!

The first humans probably came to the Big Bend area ten to twelve thousand years ago. They were nomadic hunters; moving with the seasons. Apparently the first Spaniard was Cabeza de Vaca who traveled to the area in 1535. Since he didn't find any silver or gold, the Big Bend area was of no interest to him. By 1720, the Mescalero Apaches dominated Big Bend with the Comanches using Big Bend as a thoroughfare into Mexico on their fall raids, stealing goods and livestock from the Mexicans. All of these people had to live or travel near springs or the Rio Grande River to survive. Some of the more ingenious peoples even irrigated crops by digging channels in the ground away from the Rio Grande to their vegetables. But it wasn't until the 1880s that people started inhabiting the land away from the springs or river year round.

One such place is the Homer Wilson Ranch. Also called the Blue Creek Ranch. It was a line camp for many years, mostly occupied by a foreman of the ranch named Lott Felts. It can be found in the bottom of Blue Creek Canyon.

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The remains of the ranch house and out buildings are in very good shape. The desert atmosphere has been kind, and it is evident that the park service has restored and is trying to preserve these buildings. On the west side of the house is remnants of a windmill tower.

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It is interesting to see the craftsmanship of something built so long ago. I was not able to find any information on when the tower or buildings were built.

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 The lumber used for this tower was probably cut down high in the Chisos mountains. Using horses or mules the lumber had to be packed out from a distance of about 9 miles away and a change in elevation of over 2000 feet.

Another place of interest is the Sam Nail homestead. In 1916, Sam Nail and his younger brother, Jim Nail, moved to the valley between Burro Mesa and the western side of the Chisos Mountains. By themselves they built an adobe house and dug a well. Both the remains of the windmill and part of the adobe walls are still standing. With the help of a windmill pumping water they were able to raise many nonnative trees in the middle of the Chihuahuan dessert.

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Some of the trees that survived include a fig tree, willows, walnuts, and even 2 pecan trees. At some point in the 1960s the Park service put up an Aermotor that still pumps water to these trees.

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It is strange to see a fairly flat dessert landscape and then see these big trees standing up off of the desert floor.

The second windmill the park still maintains is at Dugout Wells.

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Big Bend families considered Dugout Wells to be the cultural and social center of the area. It contained one of the few schools in this vast desert. From the road it looks like a little oasis with the cottonwood trees hard to miss towering above the scenery. Children walked for miles to attend school. Adults stopped here to rest in the shade under the cottonwoods, getting a cool drink of water and catching up on the latest gossip of the area. It was interesting to see how the park keeps hikers and other visitors from contaminating the wells.

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Both windmills that the park maintains had these "well seals" under them.

After spending several days hiking in the park, we started heading back to central Texas. We passed through several Ghost towns east of the park. Not only has T. Lindsay Baker written some excellent books on windmills, he has also written a book called "GHOST TOWNS OF TEXAS". We always keep this book in the truck so that if we pass by one we can stop and explore it. Two of the ghost towns that we went through were Longfellow and Pumpville. Both towns primarily existed to pump water for the steam locomotives of the Southern Pacific Railroad. According to T. Lindsay Baker the well drillers in Longfellow sank their wells two thousand feet deep! Unfortunately it was getting late in the day and I wasn't able to get any photos. I was able to get a photo of an Aermotor that was in the area.

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Then it was on to Langtry, the home of Judge Roy Bean and his law west of the Pecos River.

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Judge Bean dispensed liquor along with justice in his saloon. Langtry was another town that existed because of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the backyard of the saloon/courthouse there is a nicely restored Eclipse.

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All of these mills, except the Homer Wilson tower, are either right off the road, or within easy walking distance. There are many, many more mills. I have only tried to include the more historic or interesting ones. I know that if you are ever in the area you will enjoy these windmill in addition to all of the other ones.

See y'all in Big Bend!

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