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How was a windmill mecca established in Shattuck, OK?

A roadside view of the Shattuck Windmill Museum
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
A roadside view of the Shattuck Windmill Museum

A short while back, a lady named Shirley Lorenz phoned up KGOU. She was calling from the Shattuck Windmill Museum and wanted to add an event to the station’s community calendar. Jim Johnson – KGOU’s Program Director – took the call. He’s lived in Oklahoma practically his whole life, and he’d never heard of this place, he said. Did I know of it? I did not, I said, but it definitely sounded like my cup of tea. So I decided to give Shirley a ring myself. And in no time at all, we’d arranged for me to go visit the place.

After about driving for three hours from Norman to Shattuck, I arrived at the Windmill Museum. Everyone who who works at the museum is a volunteer and several of them were there to greet me, including Doug Schoenhals. He’s a lifelong Shattuck resident and has been involved with the museum since its inception in 1994. Its founder was a local lady named Phillis Ballew. Doug told me: “Phillis Ballew came back to retire in this community and in her wanting to put up a windmill like her grandad had, she found someone to restore a windmill and he stated he wanted to start a windmill museum, and Phillis thought that would be a good idea."

The restorer’s name was Marvin Stinson and he went on to loan Phillis four of his own windmills to get the place started. She then put an ad in the paper asking for volunteers to come and help. Doug was one of those who responded: “At our first official meeting we had nine people there. The next one, we had twenty-some people. We formed a board and decided to go ahead with the process.”

Doug Schoenhals standing inside one of the Museum's storage/workshop buildings
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
Doug Schoenhals standing inside one of the Museum's storage/workshop buildings

Shirley Lorenz has also involved since the museum’s early days: “I knew Phillis as a child, we were childhood friends. When she came back here and started working on the park, we had a lot more contact and I said: “You know, you have to do it. It’s the history of this area.” I told her then that I would do whatever I could for the windmill park as long as I could. She has subsequently died and so we are keeping it going."

Doug took me to see Phillis’s windmill – the one that got this whole place going. It’s kept inside to protect it. It’s called an Eclipse and is a large and rather magnificent object painted in a gleaming red and tan. Stinson evidently did an excellent job restoring it.

When Doug stepped down as the Museum’s president in 2022, Van Hurst took over. He’s a comparatively recent addition to the volunteer ranks. He told me how he became involved: “A number of years ago, I was purchasing the land out west of Shattuck of Mrs Ballew. On that land there was this old windmill, and we didn’t fully realize that it had been donated to the Museum until after the fact.”

"Wait a minute," I responded. “Does that you bought this land thinking came with a windmill and it didn’t?"

Van laughed and continued: “It was not clarified in our minds that it was already given to the windmill museum until someone approached us, and we said ‘What? Well good. They can have it.' A wooden windmill without maintenance in this part of the country will finally fall to pieces, so I was delighted that Mrs Ballew had made arrangements."

Even though Van is a relative newbie at the Museum, he came with a great deal of windmill experience: “I grew up with windmills as a source of water for our farm, north of Shattuck here, about 15 miles. And they have to be serviced regularly. Someone needs to climb up to the top, take the top off of the windmill, change the oil or be sure that it has oil in it. Well, you’ve got to realize that that’s quite a way up and when it’s turning, we need to be sure that it stops or it could knock you off. We’re supposed to put the brakes on and stop it. However, the brakes often malfunction, so I find that adventuresome. And we always appreciated having water."

All of the windmills in the museum are designed to be set over a well and pump water to the surface because those were the kinds of windmills used in this area. As Doug explained: “When the Cherokee outlet run opened in 1893, the land that was claimed was by creeks, rivers, and so on. The rest of it, they called it uninhabitable. Shortly thereafter, a lot of people started importing windmills and so the land became habitable.”

Volunteers at work at the Shattuck Windmill Museum
Shirley Lorenz
/
Shattuck Windmill Museum
Volunteers at work at the Shattuck Windmill Museum

When the Museum started, its windmills were all from places close by, many of them produced by the same manufacturers, so initially its collection lacked variety. That changed after Mrs Ballew joined a windmill association she had learned about from Marvin Stinson. There she found all kinds of windmills and so the Museum began acquiring them from further afield. I was curious about what it takes to transport a windmill, and imagined one strapped to the back of a huge truck. However, Doug told me they are taken apart first and then arrive in the form of “little piles of junk” which then have to been painstakingly reassembled.

Most of the Museum’s windmills are kept outside. One of the most eye-catching – due to its size and location – is Railroad Eclipse which stands right next to the road. Doug explained that “The Santa Fe needed a lot of water whenever they expanded their route to the west. So they tried to put a windmill every seven miles. That way they had water to generate the steam.”

As we heard, the museum started out with four windmills. It now has 64 altogether. In the process, the Museum has garnered quite the reputation amongst people interested in windmills, many of whom attend the annual windmill trade fair. Shirley said: “Every year, wind millers from around the world get together to buy, sell, and trade, chat and chew, and gossip, and whatever it is they do. And we one last year. It’s the third one we’ve had in Shattuck and they ask to come back to Shattuck.”

Early American Settlers in front of Windmill
T. Lindsay Baker/American Windmills
/
T. Lindsay Baker/American Windmills
Early American Settlers in front of Windmill

Shattuck is also very well-known locally, not least thanks to the columns that Shirley writes regularly for a couple of the area’s newspapers and which have given her the chance to learn a great deal about windmills and the role they played in this region: "We always think of windmills as the life-force because they brought water to the surface. But as I was doing research, I found out that windmills served another psychological and emotional purpose. When the pioneers came here, this was extremely flat land. There was no vertical relief. The windmill provided that. When you travel, you go to have your pictures made and you look for a structure that goes up. I don’t care if it’s the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Tower, Mount Rushmore. It can be anything. When you look at pictures of the pioneers, so often they are gathered around the windmill. And when you were in the country driving along, sometimes you would see a windmill that was off the road. You could not see the farmhouse but you knew someone lived there because there was a windmill."

Before I left, Shirley commented on the age of the Museum’s personnel: “Our volunteer group, almost all are in their 70s and 80s. The reality is that a lot of the young people today do not have the connection to the windmills that the older ones do, and I want to make certain that the young people here today have some understanding of and appreciation for what the ancestors did and what it meant to the people here.”

I certainly felt grateful for all I had learned about windmills and the vital role they played in this area. And I’d like to say special thanks to E A Reeh and Sharon Schultz Bradshaw, both whom I also met during my visit to Shattuck.

During the winter holidays, volunteers decorate the windmills with lights
E. A. Reeh
/
E. A. Reeh
During the winter holidays, volunteers decorate the windmills with lights

How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden. David Graey composed the theme music. 

And please remember, if you have an Oklahoma-related question you’d like us to investigate, please email us a curious@kgou.org.  

Rachel is a British-born and U.S.-based radio producer and folklorist with a passion for sound and storytelling. At KGOU, she is host and producer of the How Curious podcast and various special projects.
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