Windmill Industry in Kalamazoo
The production of windmills in Kalamazoo began in 1867. Within a few years Kalamazoo became one of three cities in the country to manufacture some of the best-known windmills on the market. Though the number of companies was never large, the windmill industry employed a sizable number of workers and produced healthy profits from which Kalamazoo reaped financial benefits.
The 1870s: The First Five Companies
Between 1867 and 1873 the number of windmill companies in Kalamazoo went from one to three, and by 1878 there were five. The earlier companies were all newly created just for the manufacture of windmills, while the latter two were established firms that saw the fast growth and profits in the market and added windmills as a sideline. While each company produced windmills that sold, those able to reach the foreign markets were the ones to succeed.
William H. Pendleton, Sr. designed and made the first windmill in Kalamazoo in 1867. At the time, Pendleton was a pump manufacturer, which added to his ability to design a working windmill. His windmill was based on those in Holland, but with improvements and additions that made it a sound piece of equipment. However, when Pendleton partnered with a Mr. Lucasse to develop windmill production, it was not to produce his design, but what was then considered the “old standard,” the Halladay windmill. It was named for its designer, Daniel Halladay, who built the first windmill in the United States. Although an older design, it was still a popular seller. The Pendleton Company eventually merged with William’s, Smith & Co.
William’s, Smith & Co., operated by Bradley S. Williams and Kirk A. Smith, was formed in 1873. The company made the Stover Automatic Windmill. Employing forty men, on average, they were able to make and sell twenty-five mills a week. With the Pendleton merger, the company also made and sold the Halladay windmill along with other agricultural equipment. In 1876, they exported mills to five countries. The company’s international sales took a big leap in 1877, when it shipped a full railcar load of mills and equipment to South Africa.
Phelps and Bigelow, was organized in 1873 by Horace Phelps and Melville J. Bigelow. In 1876, it was incorporated under the name Phelps and Bigelow Windmill Co. The company employed twenty – thirty men. They produced two windmills: the Perkins Mill, from the time the company started and then added the “I. X. L.,” which made them known in business circles around the world. The “I. X. L.” windmill “was one of the best, if not the best, for farm use. Phelps and Bigelow claimed that in “beauty, simplicity, durability and power” the “I X L” had no equal. Demand for their products grew steadily at home and abroad.
The above companies, at the time they formed, were all located on Eleanor Street. The suggestion was made to change the name of the street to “Windmill Row.”
C.H. Bird & Co., founders and machinists, saw fast growth in the windmill industry and began production of a windmill in 1878. They occupied a building on N. Church St., just north of the Michigan Central Railway. Bird made the former superintendent of Lawrence and Chapin, Thomas Clarage, a partner. The mill they produced was called the Bird.
Bush & Peterson Co. had been an established firm since 1856. They made several products, blinds, doors, sashes, fanning mills, billiard table legs, building materials, and in the late 1870s added windmills to the list. Their windmills were never in great demand, but as a well-known firm, they had no problem selling what they did make.
The 1880’s: New Companies, Mergers and Success
It was during this decade when the windmill industry hit its peak. In 1886 “there were more than two-hundred workers employed in the industry.” Between the five companies, 4,000 windmills and windmill engines were produced. However, the companies could not survive on the sale of windmills alone and manufactured and sold tanks, pumps, pipe, and buckets. The year saw the total capital of the firms at $400,000 in windmill sales with another $200,000 added from the sales of the accessories. And of the 4,000 windmills made, almost “1,500 were exported to foreign markets.” It was this growth in foreign markets that gave Kalamazoo the name of “Windmill City.”
Homer Manvel Company began manufacturing windmills in 1880 or 1881 at the corner of Water and Edwards Streets. They did not make many mills and only was in business until 1884. In that year, Manvel joined the B. S. Williams Company, which, in turn, took over production of the Manvel Windmill.
Smith & Woodard Company, organized by Kirk A. Smith, formerly of Williams, Smith & Co., and John E. Woodard by 1881. In 1889, Woodard retired from the company and Willis Pomeroy, an agent of the company, bought him out to become a partner of the newly named Smith and Pomeroy Windmill Company. Along with the name change, the company became incorporated that year. From its beginning, the company’s top selling windmill was the Eureka. The Eureka windmill was made from galvanized steel and sold as a windmill to last a lifetime.
Williams Manufacturing Company, formerly known as Williams, Smith and Co. and later the S. Williams Co., after the departure of Kirk Smith in 1879. While still making the Stover mill, they produced the first steel windmill. Production numbers of the steel mills were low for two reasons: the new material made them “quite a bit more more clumsy than were wooden mills” and farmers needed to be convinced that metal was better. When Homer Manvel joined the company, Williams Manufacturing added the Manvel Windmill to their production. In 1889, the company officially became Williams Manufacturing and formed a stock company. They were located at the corner of E. Water and N. Edwards Streets.
Bird Windmill Company, earlier known as C.H. Bird and Company, was the new name for the company when it was incorporated in 1883. The Bird Windmill was their primary concern but added the production of windmill equipment and other small implements. Further change came in 1886 when St. John Plow Company merged with Bird. Production then included both the Bird Windmill and the St. John Disklandslide Plow. The company also took the name of the St. John Plow Company.
George H. Garside Company produced a mill they named the Leader. It was a dependable mill that sold very well both locally and nationally. The company was one of the leaders in the windmill industry in 1886.
The 1890’s: Depression and New Technology
The depression that began in 1873 became worse in the 1890s. Farmers were no longer able to get a decent price for their crops, resulting in reduced sales of windmills. If a farmer did contract to buy a mill, often he was not able to make the payments and the windmill company wrote it off as a loss. Of the five companies in business in the 1880s, four survived into the new decade, but only three continued to make windmills.
St. John Plow Company ended the manufacturing of windmills before the middle of the decade. Thomas Clarage, who had become a partner when the company was C. H. Bird, took over the firm in the early 1890s. The name was changed to the Clarage Company, eventually becoming the Clarage Fan Company.
Williams Manufacturing Company, the oldest of the windmill companies, continued to make their windmills and had success in foreign markets into 1894. Their early profits encouraged the company to build an addition onto the existing plant on Harrison Street. The company worked under this name until 1905, when it became Kalamazoo Tank and Silo Company.
Phelps and Bigelow Windmill Company had a good start to the decade with foreign exports of their mills but saw a loss in sales growing in the mid-1890s. To help their business, the company held an event in 1896 to introduce a new twelve-foot windmill. An ad in the Kalamazoo Gazette invited farmers throughout Kalamazoo County to see the new mill in operation; it was able to work as a “grinder, a corn sheller and a number of other tools at the same time.” The event must have helped business, for in December the company provided each employee with a turkey for Christmas.
Smith and Pomeroy Windmill Company made its last export to a foreign market in 1890. After that it began to struggle but did survive. Sales of the Eureka continued into the second decade of the twentieth century.
One factor that made the windmill industry different from others was that the companies did not use negative business tactics, such as a price war. The companies tended to support each other. Such was the case in the later part of the 1890s. With the advent of the steel windmill, the Kalamazoo Galvanizing Company profited well from all the work received from the windmill companies. To reduce their costs, the windmill manufacturers joined together and took over Kalamazoo Galvanizing.
The Decline of the Industry
The turn of the century brought modest improvement to the economy. While it was thought that the windmill might serve as the means to supply electricity to the farmers, it did not last long. By 1915, electric power lines extended into the rural districts. Gasoline powered engines, though not as economical as windmills, also limited the need for windmills. These engines offered farmers more control over the pumping action and the flow of water. In 1909, two companies, Phelps and Bigelow and Smith and Pomeroy, did not merge but worked to help each other survive. The former moved into the same building as the latter at 220 S. Burdick. Willis Pomeroy, who after the death of Smith in 1903, alone ran his company, also served on the board of directors of Phelps and Bigelow. With both companies facing low profits, Kalamazoo Tank and Silo Company bought out their shares in the Kalamazoo Galvanizing Company and moved the plant to its Harrison Street location. In 1915, Smith and Pomeroy closed its windmill business and Phelps and Bigelow did the same in 1916. Kalamazoo Tank and Silo continued to make windmills until it was no longer profitable around 1930.
Written by Brent Coates, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2023
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 May 1873, page 6, column 1
“LOCAL NEWS – There are more Wind Mills…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 June 1875, page 3, column 3
“Local News – The wind mill men of Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 February 1880, page 4, column 4
“Local News – During the heavy wind the other…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 March 1880, page 4, column 2
“Williams Manufacturing Co.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 January 1889, page 5, column 3
“Jottings – Phelps and Bigelow…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 December 1896, page 5, column 1
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 June 1903, page 4, column 4
“Sufferings End Kirk A. Smith”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 July 1903, page 8, column 4
“St. John’s Plow Co.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 July 1904, Supplement, page 30, column 2
“Spinning Wheels of Bygone Days”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 June 1970, page 35, column 1
The Windmill History in Kalamazoo, James R. Brand (H338.8 B817)
“Eureka Windmills” Progressive Kalamazoo, c. 1904, Historic Newspapers, p.21, (H 977.418 P964)