Frequently Asked Questions


The following are questions I have received from e-mail submissions and from inquiries during my windmill presentations.  If you would like to submit a question, just send an e-mail and I will answer it thoroughly and promptly.

I am amazed at the windmills near Paw Paw, IL.  Why are there so many in just that one area, and what is their purpose? 

What you witnessed in Paw Paw is the first “wind farm” installed in Illinois, known as Mendota Hills.  As part of his power conservation plan, [former] Governor Blagojevich worked to add renewable energy plants to the state’s power grid.  This site was chosen particularly because of the prevailing westerly winds and completely open plains (a wind farm like this couldn’t possibly work in the city or suburbs; there are too many obstructions). 


Why did they build a windmill in Mount Emblem Cemetery?


Many people assume that the cemetery was established first; but the land was first owned by Henry Fischer, who operated a farm and built the windmill in 1865.  In 1925, the farmland was sold to the Mount Emblem Cemetery Association, which chose to preserve the windmill and transform the flat farmland into the hilly tree-lined cemetery we see today.


Has the Fischer windmill always looked the way it is now [referring to the sails]?


No. The sails currently fitted on the Fischer Windmill are purely for show and could not serve any purpose because are permanently bolted to the cap.  This is the third complete set of replacement sails, necessary because tail winds have damaged the original sails and the cap in the past (winds tend to blow from the west and southwest, but the cap is turned to face the northeast).


Why was Batavia the center for wind engine manufacturing?


Batavia was home to Halladay’s U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company, the first windmill manufacturer in the nation.  It makes the most business sense to locate in Batavia because of its proximity to railroads (to ship windmills and parts anywhere in the nation) and because it was nestled in the vast corn fields of Illinois (since the clients were farmers and railroad owners).


Why are the windmills in Illinois called “Dutch”?


Even though the windmills in Illinois are mixed with German, Swedish, Danish, British, Flemish, American, and Dutch designs, they are still often incorrectly referred to as “Dutch mills.”  Realistically speaking, they all appear very similar to the style of windmill that was perfected and popularized by the Dutch.  The historical records kept during the nineteenth century were often inaccurate or incomplete.


Why are Dutch windmills made entirely of wood?


For one, landowners in Holland would often relocate windmills on their property in an attempt to find the best location to catch the wind, thus realizing their mills’ maximum potential.  Another other reason is that wood is one of the cheapest building materials.  Since windmills often fall victim to high winds in severe weather, their broken parts can replaced as often as needed at a low cost.  Yet another reason is that the very fine dust produced by grinding flour is flammable.  If metal parts within the mill were to spark (even if just from normal vibration), it could ignite the dust and cause an explosion.


What is the difference between German and Dutch mills?


There are a few differences.  Really, a mill and its style are based on its builder’s preferences and background.  The Dutch developed the smock mill as we know it, but it Germans modernized the style.  German mills are usually wider at the base to accommodate more machinery, have shingled exteriors (as opposed to the Dutch, who used reed thatch), and more often have tail fans to rotate the cap rather than a winch.  Other minor differences may include the way in which the floor joists are cut and mortised into the cant posts.  The styles are all generally similar, especially since the countries neighbor one another.


How many [custom] windmills are in Illinois?


There are currently five windmills in Illinois.  When commenting on the condition of the Graue Mill (a restored water mill in DuPage County), Leslie C. Swanson, author of Old Mills in the Midwest, writes “1,800 old mills...once dotted the Illinois landscape.”  I do not know how many of those 1,800 mills could have been windmills.  Even in frontier Illinois, wind-powered mills were scarce because of their unreliability.  To date, I am aware of FIFTY windmills that used to stand in this state.


Were there ever any windmills in Chicago?


Yes, there were FOUR:
1) At 111th and State in the Roseland community. 
2) At the present site of the Carl Schurz High School in Old Irving Park
3) At Lincoln Park, back when land owned by Samuel McKay was purchased
for the old Chicago Cemetery in the 1850s.
4) Near the “reservation tract” in 1839.
There were also windmills up for the Colombian Exposition and the World’s Fair, but these were temporarily on display.


Why is the platform called a stage?


Technically speaking, the wooden platform that surrounds a tower mill is called a “reefing stage.”  Just as on sailboats, “reefing” refers to the adjustment of the sail to harness the wind.  The term “stage” is accurate because it is a platform from which an action is performed by a person (as opposed to a terrace or balcony, which is used for leisure or relaxing), and is the traditional term used by millwrights.


Why are so few windmills equipped with tail fans?


The tail fan, invented in Britain by Edmund Lee in 1745, is used to automatically wind the cap without any action by the miller.  While this was seen as a great convenience to some millers, the tail fan was never a popular design feature in Holland, where millers preferred to have manual control over the direction of the sails.  One reason, they claimed, was that the tail fan would turn the sails into the wind of a powerful storm.


How did you become interested in windmills?


I became interested in windmills as early as the age of two, after my aunt passed away and our family frequently visited Mount Emblem Cemetery.  My interest in architecture and the discovery of more windmills in Illinois eventually led to more research and, ultimately, the launch of this website.


Where can I go to see if our farm can be considered to be leased for a wind farm?


I would suppose you would first need to contact one of the major power companies in your area (be it ComEd, or whomever); or, better yet, contact one of the companies that produces wind turbines (such as Vestas).  That would probably be the better route, since an outside company would be making the major investment involved in construction a wind farm.  I would assume that they would want to first conduct a wind analysis to see if your area is windy enough to constitute constructing a wind farm.  After that, they'd just have to secure funding, order the turbines, and up they'd go!


What is the best resource for information about wind turbines?


The American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, has just about everything anyone would want to know about wind turbines, including current and future projects, fact sheets, and wind data for every state.  Find them at


What happened to the McKee painting of the Fischer Windmill?


The painting was donated by the eighth grade graduating class of 1952 from Oak Avenue School in LaGrange Park, Illinois to the Nettie J. McKinnon Collection of American Art, which is managed by the Salt Creek American Art Foundation.  The painting itself was originally made in 1949 after John Dukes McKee was commissioned to paint 50 Northern Illinois landmarks by the Illinois Northern Utilities Company.


Why do windmills with tail fans sometimes still have tie beams in the cap?


As I experienced first-hand with my model windmill project, the extra timbers at the rear of the cap help to counter-balance the weight of the sails and wind shaft; without them, it could be easier for the wind to blow the cap off of the tower in a tail wind.  Another answer, however, is that the mill may have, at one time, been operating with a tail pole prior to the installation of the tail fan (the Peotone Windmill is an example of this).


I was wondering if you know any good colleges that teach windmill tech in Illinois?


There are wind-tech classes through the Department of Technology at Illinois State University in Normal, IL.  You can find a list of links to schools in this field from the U.S. Department of Energy website.


Why aren’t there more turbines in the suburbs?


Although a number of residents in outlying areas (like Joliet and Plainfield) have erected turbines for their homes, larger turbines, like Big Windy in Schiller Park, have been requested but are often met with opposition.  In addition to the red tape required to have a large-scale turbine built, the suburbs are more densely populated and may block the wind necessary to make such a turbine successful.
UPDATE: You may soon see more wind turbines; Governor Pat Quinn signed the School District Intergovernmental Cooperation Renewable Energy Act, allowing schools to use solar and wind energy to power their facilities.

How come a few wind turbines will not turn, even on windy days?

Wind turbines must undergo maintenance tune-ups every thirty days. Thus, on a 150-turbine wind farm, it should not be uncommon to see 5 different wind turbines down every day for maintenance (after all - it would not be economical to shut down all 150 units for a single day of maintenance). Turbines may also be decommissioned if weather conditions are too severe, too light, or if problems are detected that could prevent safe operation.


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