The "Eli" Windmill
|"Stop working for the oil kings!" Use
the wind to pump water and save time and money." Thus read a 1922
advertisement for the "Eli" windmill, a classic example of a mill
produced for sale within a restricted geographical area.
The "Eli" was manufactured in Nebraska City, the county seat of Otoe County in southwestern Nebraska, from the late 19th Century into the World War II years.
Unfortunately, the origin of the "Eli" windmill is confusing. Family traditions state the George Frederick Kregel began making the distinctive mill at Nebraska City about 1902. Printed sources from farm implement industry cloud this straightforward oral tradition.
As early as 1891 and through the decade of the 1890's, George F. Kregel is listed as a manufacturer of windmills called "Eli" at Nebraska City. This date is reinforced by his appearance as a windmill manufacturer in some other farm publications.
During the decade of the 1890's George F. Kregel gave his business address as a windmill manufacturer as 1401 Central Avenue, and this is the address where he and his brother, Louis also operated the Nebraska City Manufacturing Company.
The two brothers produced breaking plows and other agricultural goods. Louis later moved to St. Louis to enter the casket business, leaving brother George to pursue the windmills.
George F. Kregel operated his windmill business under his personal name until about 1911, by which time it had moved to its present location at 1416 Central Avenue and had become the Kregel Windmill Company. It exists under the same name in this same building to this day in Nebraska City, although it has built no windmills for over 40 years.
Two principal casting compose the head of the "Eli". The larger of the two is attached firmly to the mast pipe and it supports the vane assembly. The smaller of the two castings, which can swivel 90 degrees on top of the mast pipe supports the wheel, main shaft, and crank plate.
Regulation is through the combination of an offset wheel with a vane assembly that serves an additional roles as a governor weight. The main shaft is set about two inches to one side. As the wheel swivels away from the wind, the end of the hinged vane raises. When the wind decreases, the weight of the vane draws the wheel back to face the wind. There are no gears or brakes on this mill.
The wheel on the "Eli" contains one of its most striking elements. Unlike almost all other mills, the blades on the "Eli" are mounted behind the outer wheel rims. While the blades are riveted to the inner rim, the outer ends of the blades are riveted to the inner rim, the outer ends of the blades are riveted to the "L" shaped galvanized steel bracket that hold them in a position completely behind the outer rim. The maker claimed that this design was superior because the brackets reinforced the blades to within seven inches of their tips and avoided weakening the blades with large holes for rim mounting. Although the design is unusual, one cannot help but be impressed by the large numbers of wheels that have survived on derelict "Eli" mills observed in the field.
"Eli" mills were manufactured with 8 1/2' and 10' diameter wheels. The 8 1/2' mills have a total of thirty blades and the 10' size have thirty six. These blades are all long and narrow, aiding to the identification of the mills. The earliest steel "Eli" mills have one crimp toward the outer tip of the blades for reinforcement, while the more recent examples have two parallel crimps form stiffening.
There are several keys to approximate dating of the production of individual "Eli" mills. According to Kregel family traditions, the earliest mills (of which none exist) employed wooden wheels and vanes. They were made only a few years. Soon these were supplanted by mills with steel wheels and vanes, although wooden wheel arms and vane stem bracket designed for wooden arms and vane stem would be comparatively early specimen. About 1920 a number of new designs were introduced. In order to compete with oil bath mills, the old style grease cups were replaced with an oil reservoir beneath the main shaft made as part of the casting supporting it. From the main shaft three oiling rings dipped down into this long enclosed reservoir to carry oil up to the main shaft and its babbitt bearings. A chain lift oiler was added to lubricate the upper pitman bearing at the crank plate. About 1920 the mills began to be equipped with ball bearing turn tables.
The casting for the "Eli" were provided by foundries in both Omaha and Nebraska City. There they were machined and finished. Most of the mills with paint still adhering show a red color. The vane inscription is stenciled in black.
The physical plant of the Kregel Company to this day retains virtually all of its old style windmill manufacturing tool equipment. Although most of the equipment is used only occasionally, it all remains in beautiful condition. Even the jigs for punching tower legs are still on the shelves, for the Kregel firm also made its own line of galvanized angle steel towers in 25', 31',42', and 53' heights.
Throughout its history as a windmill manufacturer, the Kregel Windmill Company sold only to individuals. Often family members and company employees contracted to erect the mills sold. The firm never employed agents or salesmen, consequently today one rarely sees an "Eli" more than about 60 miles from Nebraska City. Art Kregel, son of company founder George F. Kregel and today owner of the business, estimates that the firm produced approximately 2000 units during its half century as a windmill maker.
Mr. Kregel noted that most of the mills went to customers in southeastern Nebraska, with a few to western Nebraska, eastern Iowa, and northeastern Kansas. "We never made any money out of," he recalls. "If we'd made any more mills, we probably would have gone broke."
There is one question that almost everyone has about the Eli--how did it get its name? Interestingly, there was no one in the Kregel family named Eli. Instead George F. Kregel chose the name merely because to him it seemed easy to read painted on the vane of a mill seen from a distance. In terms of design and its history, the "Eli" is one of the most interesting of all of the windmills marketed in only a limited geographical area. They are rarely seen outside the small area surrounding Nebraska City, and are highly desirable mills for collectors and for institutions preserving the material culture of Nebraska's past.
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