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ManyTracks' House and Home

by Sue Robishaw and Steve Schmeck


Water via our
 Water Pumping Windmill


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A great quartet of main players is the heart of our homestead - the land, the house, the solar system, and the all important well, pump, and water pumping windmill. It was the first big project, starting before we moved when we still lived in the city. It was, has, and continues to be a big part of our lives, not only for the practical and much appreciated pumping of our water but for its aesthetics, too. We love the look of it. For almost 50 years it has been a big part of our lives, and we hope it continues for many decades more. So it was a great surprise to me to find, when I went to add something to the "windmill page" that there wasn't one. How could that be? Something so important to us! With all the many, many pages on our website there was not one for our wonderful windmill. Now there is...

The full story is in our "Homesteading Adventures" book (we didn't neglect it there!) but the basic story is we bought a fresh, new 8 foot Heller-Aller Baker 'Runs in Oil' windmill and a beautiful red Monitor pump direct and in person from the Heller-Aller Factory in 1976, after we bought the land and had the well drilled (105 feet deep) but before we moved. That winter we put together half of the fan and it was an impressive part of the decor in our living room (well, we liked it). Many adventures are attached to the whole system, with a re-purposed abandoned power tower bought from a friend, a 1200 gallon tank for water storage, pump rod and pipe and all that. Great memories (some are more fun from a distance in time!). But all these many years later the system still works and we daily appreciate that wonderful great cold well water coming out of the tap in the house, arriving from some 400 feet away where it is pumped from the ground into the tank by the now faded but still running Baker Water Pumping Windmill.

Some photos and highlights follow, along with more recent adventures with this basic, not-so-simple homestead water system.

re-constructing tower 1978

Reconstructing the tower 1978

digging windmill tower footing hole

Digging tower footing hole

raising windmill tower with dumptruck

Raising the tower was quite an adventure, made possible by Bernie's willingness (with his venerable old dump-truck) to do the unusual

raising windmill tower - almost there

It was a hold-your-breath moment(s) but the tower legs landed just where they were supposed to.

  windmill tower unhooking pull chain

Someone had to climb up the tower to undo the pull chains -- Steve's first introduction to climbing that 55 ft steel tripod

windmill fan going up

The next project was to get the windmill installed up on top. It took many tries to get the fan up as the least little bit of wind would get it turning and we'd have to bring it back down to wait for another (even calmer) day. We quickly learned about the wind patterns at our new homestead.

laundry by hand beside new water tank

The deep well pump came before the tower and windmill were up and we were so happy to have our own water, pumped by hand with our new red Monitor pump. Even laundry by hand was fun, for a few loads.
We've come a long way since then!

custom low water pressure faucet

Running water in the house sure beats hauling it by hand. The windmill pumps water into the (buried) tank, then a buried line brings it into the house. There's plenty of flow for our use but not for common high pressure faucets so Steve created a custom unit with a brass ball valve and old faucet unit.

We've had a variety of old sinks over the years but this custom wood sink has graced our kitchen since 2010.

garden orchard windmill July

orchard windmill big snow 2019

PUMP ADVENTURE (Again) - February 27, 2017water pumping windmill 2016

Last week during that extended warm spell we had some days of good wind so we could pump water with our windmill. The water is pumped into a nearby 1200 gal tank (earth covered) and in the winter we can only pump when temps are above freezing, and, of course, when we have a good but not gale force winds. We fill the tank in late fall/early winter before temperatures drop and then usually a few days during winter to top it up. This year we had ample opportunity. We thought. So when it was both warm and windy we turned the windmill on and let it pump for a few days. The level in the tank was down to less than 400 gals so we were happy for the pumping weather. When we checked the water level again, expecting to have pumped at least 200 gals, we found it had added only about 20 gals. Sigh...

windmill pump leathersWe’d been here before, many, many times over our 40 years here. We knew what was wrong, and what needed to be done. Leathers. Our pump is rather like an oversized old fashioned “pitcher pump” but a deep well version with leathers since our well is 105 ft deep. We can pump it by hand but we much prefer the windmill do that job. At the bottom of the drop pipe is a brass cylinder, and inside that runs the leathers assembly attached to about 95 feet of 3/8” stainless steel rod in 12 ft sections. It really works very well. But we have hard water, very tasty but full of minerals that coat the rod and eventually trickle down to lodge in the leathers. Which spreads them out, wears them out, and can jamb up the whole business. In this case, the main leather had worn through and the water was simply not being pumped up to go into our tank.

In our early years we had a regular steel drop rod which would corrode and add its own supply of sediment. Back then we had to pull the rod and replace the leathers many times a year. We got very good at it, and quite tired of the job, especially when it happed in the winter. Eventually we installed stainless steel drop rod, much heavier but much “cleaner”. And Steve figured out the best configuration for the leathers. Now we’re down to pulling, cleaning, changing leathers (and connectors which wear down against the well pipe) about once every five years. It had been six years since the last time. And it was obvious if we wanted to pump water now we had to pull the rod. This is done by hand. Our hands. And we much prefer to do it in the warmer months. We could moderate our water use and probably get by until spring. Or we could do it now. And we had this two day window of relatively warm weather to do it in.

pump rods disasembledWe wanted plenty of water; we didn’t want to have to stint. So...we pulled. And we discovered that the stainless steel drop rod had not become any lighter over the last six years. And getting the pieces apart wasn't any easier. So as we pulled up and disassembled the rod, piece by piece, we discussed that we really needed to find a way to make this job easier. But soon (relatively) it was done. The 95 feet of rod was piled up in 12 ft pieces against the side of the windmill tower.

Now we had years earlier scrounged all the local supply of leathers and finally ordered online some that were close in size. The best we could do. So Steve modifies them to fit. That was fine; we had some on hand. When we pulled the rod we discovered that the connectors were badly worn and had to be replaced. Unfortunately, we didn’t have those on hand but we hoped to get them locally (Manistique), or at least in Escanaba. It was getting late but there was still time to get in town so we went inside and starting calling. First Hoholik’s in Manistique. They kindly went and checked. Yes, they had some in our size - hurray! -- 4 of them. Oh. We needed 8. No way around it. So we called all around Escanaba. Nothing. Simple common rod end connectors but not common in our size. One place said they might be able to get an order in yet that day and they’d arrive the next day. Maybe. We would simply have to wait until the truck came in to see if they came in. We ordered.
pump rod connectors

So the next day, a beautiful warm day, we simply had to wait. Well, not exactly ‘just wait’. Steve went to work on the leathers while I cleaned up the drop rod. The phone call did finally come. The connectors were on the truck and we had just enough time to get to Escanaba to pick them up . But not enough time to get home before dark. The weather forecast was iffy for the following day but nothing to be done but hope for at least above freezing temps for the hands that had to hold that drop rod as it went back down the pipe, piece by piece, with the fresh new connectors holding it all together.

pump rod wrenchesAnd it was indeed above freezing, and a simply beautiful day with the sun poking through the clouds now and then to cheer us on. The gods do smile down on we homesteaders more often than we remember sometimes! Steve arranged a block and tackle up in the windmill tower to help us lower the last, heavy (since you’re now holding the previous 60 feet of rod), pieces so it was stress-free and quite pleasant. We enjoyed being outside, working together on a homestead project that we’d done so many times before. We knew the drill. And we were confident it would work. Well, fairly confident...

pump waterEverything was together, the pump rod down, the pump back on, the tools gathered, the windmill rod connected. There was a real nice breeze; it was still above freezing. We let it pump. Steve opened the faucet on the side of the pump. Water!! He closed it and I ran up to the top of the tank and put my ear to the small opening we have into the tank (to measure the water level)......ker splash, ker splash, ker splash. Ahhhhh, what a wonderful sound, water splashing into the tank. It pumped all evening. And the next day. And I measured almost 700 gals of water in the tank before the temperature and the wind dropped. Life is good. We have water. And we are full of appreciation.


March 31, 2019 -- Ending March with a Homestead Adventure

Our lives are overall quite calm and pleasant here on the homestead. But there does come along those little things that makes you take a deep breath, and stretch those muscles just a bit more. In this case I was doing the 'hold your breath' and Steve was doing the muscle thing.

Yesterday, a pleasant but cool and very blustery day, Steve came in and asked why I had turned our water pumping windmill 'out'. This means lifting a steel tube arm at the base of the tower that is connected via steel cable to the windmill at the top to make the tail of the windmill open out from flat against the fan (not turning around and not pumping) to right angle to the fan (turning and pumping). Surprised I said I hadn't; it was too windy and gusty to have the windmill going. Oh. We looked at each other. The possibilities going through our minds weren't real exciting. Then again, maybe with the strong winds buffeting things the arm had simply come out of its wire holder on its own letting the tail out. Steve went up to check, and came back with the news - broken cable. At the top (of course...). Well, it was too cold and too windy to do anything about it. We just had to trust the windmill to handle it on its own, which it does with a mechanism that automatically 'closes' the tail to the fan when the wind is too strong, which it did many times that day and night. It is designed to do that but there's also a reason it's built to pull it out (off) by hand. It's safer and better for the windmill, and we want this 40 yr old mill to keep working for many more decades.

We didn't worry about it but there was the consideration of when to fix it, which needed to be done and couldn't wait for nice spring/summer weather. This really was Steve's decision. I've never even been to the top of the tower, and there was that muscle thing. I encouraged waiting several days when the forecast was for above freezing temps but he decided to do it this morning. He'd figured out what needed to be done (probably - one never knows for sure), and wanted to get it fixed. The forecast was for continued wind. Gathering tools and hardware, and putting on his climbing harness, off he went.

First was to undo the cable at the bottom. These bolts and nuts had been together for... mmm, let's see, had they been apart since he put them on 40 yrs ago? Probably not. Oh well, muscle, vice grips and WD40 did the job. He reconnected the cable to the pull-out arm giving more slack to make up for the broken piece at the top. Then up he went, slowly and carefully, to see what it really looked like at the top.

Thankfully, that strong north wind had calmed somewhat, and it was partly sunny which helped. The temperature was in the upper 20's. Not warm but not bitterly cold either. Really quite a pleasant day - relatively speaking. As he climbed the tower I wandered around the orchard (someone had to do this part of the job) keeping an eye on him and thinking encouragement.

steve on windmill towerIt took awhile but finally he called down from above, "I need another two inches". Well, I was happy to oblige but really, we're talking 1/4" steel cable! I looked at the loops of cable connecting it to the pullout arm, and squeezed them flat as best I could, hoping to gain enough length, but I knew it wasn't 2". "Try that", I called, ever hopeful. I knew he'd tightened those bolts as tight as he could and wasn't looking forward to trying to get them off to give some more slack. Nor did I want him to have to climb back down to do it (then back up again). I waited while the cable tightened, then loosened. Try again. Tightened - connected?? - loosened. Not yet. Again. Steve later said that the impetus to pull just a little bit more to clip that cable on to what it had to be clipped onto up there was the thought of going into town for a banana split as a reward. Apparently that worked because the cable tightened - and stayed. "Pull it out", came from above. I pulled the pull-out arm down and it smoothly and nicely pulled the tail out, flat to the fan, stopping the fan from turning in the (strengthening) wind. Hooking the arm behind its holder I yelled back up, "It worked!". It was just the right amount of cable. Sometimes things work out just fine. Down came my homestead hero, slowly and carefully, step by step, cold but satisfied, ready for his well earned banana split.

Well, the banana split didn't end up happening. Steve went to work on his boat frames instead and just as he was finishing, the bandsaw blade snapped. So he did get his trip to town but it was in the other direction to buy a new sawblade. I went along to take him out to dinner instead.


* * * * * *
Copyright by Susan Robishaw


To read more about the first two decades on our homestead check out

"Homesteading Adventures -A Guide for Doers and Dreamers"  

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Updated 04/07/2018


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