Between the Lines: An old friend who has served us well is worth saving

Turkey vultures come in to roost as the sun sets on Vermillion last spring.  (Photo by David Lias)

Turkey vultures come in to roost as the sun sets on Vermillion last spring.
(Photo by David Lias)

By David Lias

These days, they’re likely referred to by most people as reminders of the “good ol’ days.”

I’m speaking of the windmills that used to dot the landscape – not today’s huge, white, electricity-generating devices, but the smaller, often rustic-looking machines that stood, at one time it seemed, in virtually every farmyard.

We had one on the home place. If my family lore is accurate, it was likely put in place in the 1930s, for my dad would tell stories about climbing it when he was a kid.

During my childhood, our farm’s windmill worked perfectly. I remember how one naturally just glanced at it when stepping outside – it was the perfect way to tell how strong the wind was blowing, and from which direction. The spinning blades were moved into the right direction by the windmill’s vane, or tail. Our’s sported the words THE AERATOR which could still be seen in large black letters after decades of abuse from the sun, the wind, and other elements.

One morning, upon awakening, we did what we automatically had done for all of our lives on the farm – glanced out the window to take a quick look at the windmill. Only it wasn’t there.

A squall of high wind had moved through during the night while we were sleeping. It was too much for the tower that held up the working part of the windmill to bear.

It was on the ground – a crumpled mess – too broken to try to repair.

David Lias

David Lias

Our windmill stood directly above our farm’s well, and through a bit of engineering that I can’t adequately describe, the spinning blades powered the pump that drew the water from the well.

We needed no other power source to keep our cistern full. The wind always blows in South Dakota, after all. Most of the time, the pump was going full steam, and there were many instances when either one of my brothers or I would be told to lift up a large wooden lever nestled within the windmill’s tower. Doing so basically shifted the windmill and its workings out of gear to keep the cistern from overflowing.

I don’t know if mourning is the right term, but a unique feeling of loss replaced the windmill. I think we all experienced it for a long, long time. Life just wasn’t the same; the farm just became a bit sad after it was gone. It had been a part of the landscape for so long – and, in fact, it was an image shared by anyone who drove past our farm. Out of habit, my family members and I glanced upward in the windmill’s direction for weeks, and then months, only to see blue sky and to be reminded of what we had lost.

I dredge up these memories, as I fear that a similar loss may happen soon. In just a couple years, my wife and I will mark 20 years living across the street from the city’s downtown water tower, a structure whose days are numbered, it appears.

A new, much larger, and modern storage water apparatus is now standing directly east of Wal-Mart. Workers will eventually have all of its pieces put together, and they will treat the inside and paint its outside. When it’s complete, the old downtown water tower will be taken down.

When we first moved here, the old tower gleamed silver in the sun, its metallic finish no doubt growing quite hot on summer days. Several years ago, however, the tower was painted a much more soothing beige color.

It’s so soothing that turkey vultures gather there in the evenings during the warmer months of the year. During the day, especially nice, warm summer days, they often soar above it – the tower’s location near the bluff makes it a perfect place for their long wings to be lifted by rising columns of warm air.

They are majestic. I know, it sounds crazy to describe vultures in such a way. But just watch them someday this spring and summer.

I tend to think that I am progressive, always looking ahead. I’m sure it can be argued that because of its size and age, the old water tower must go.

This structure, however, has been a part of downtown Vermillion for many decades now. It has historic value – these things aren’t being built any more. The old tower gives a certain ambience to the most historic area of our city – standing, as the vulture flies, only a few block from the courthouse, the Austin-Whittemore House, the Baptist Church – old buildings that remind us of our heritage.

Call me crazy, but I think efforts should be made to see if the tower should be saved. I’m certain the turkey vultures would agree with me.

What do you think?

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5 Responses to Between the Lines: An old friend who has served us well is worth saving

  1. Sharon Gray says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I am eager to work with others interested in preserving the water tower and have created a group on Facebook to facilitate the discussion:

  2. Thank you for directing me to this article and the Facebook link. Is there a petition vs. a vote? is there a “Save the Water Tower Fund”?
    Any Historic Foundation, etc? let me know via :

    Thank you, Mary Ann Strandell

  3. While it may no longer be functional as a water tower, it remains an iconic feature of the downtown area. Personally, I’d been thinking about how it’s silhouette could be incorporated into some branding for the city… even before I’d heard about it’s potential demolition. I’d love to see some creative thinking around how to turn the water tower into an engaging, and attention-getting, public art site.

  4. Dennis Navrat says:

    The sight of turkey vultures circling and congregating on the tower during afternoons is quite remarkable and enjoyable to watch, relaxing and refreshing. I would love to save the old tower, too. It is a doppelganger of one in the schoolyard in Marion, KS, still standing proud, full of history. Each time I look at the tower in Vermillion, I am reminded how I climbed the one in Marion as a third grader at recess. Bad idea. The principal administered the spanking with his well-worn paddle, but I am proud I did it. Why diminish the skyline of Vermillion just to be “modern,” or “safer”? The logic that it must go would be similar to razing the Eiffel Tower in Paris just because it is old. Let Las Vegas put odds on when the Vermillion tower will topple and the “Save the Water Tower group could help raise funds for liability insurance (if that is the only reason to get rid of it).

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