San Joaquin County’s “Italian Windmills”

Museums are like icebergs—only a small portion of most museums' collections are visible to the public. The bulk remains "underwater," stored for future exhibits and preserved for the benefit of future generations. And sometimes fascinating artifacts are visible, but under-appreciated.

Davis-type windmill adapted for domestic use, D. M. Drais farm, Farmington, Calif.

Such is the case with the wooden Improved Davis Windmill currently displayed—but easily overlooked—on the inside north wall of the Micke Building at the San Joaquin County Museum. Windmills of this kind were often called "Italian Windmills." Here's the story behind that artifact.

Truck farming was the entry point into self-directed agriculture in San Joaquin County from about 1900 into the 1940s, especially for immigrant Italians and Japanese. Truck farmers were small-acreage family farmers who grew a variety of vegetables and fruits that they delivered by small trucks and horse-drawn wagons for sale at the Stockton Growers' Market.

The barriers to entry into truck farming were low compared to larger-scale agriculture. Relatively little money was needed to lease a small plot of land, acquire simple farm equipment—typically small implements pulled by a team of horses or a small tractor—and purchase a small truck or wagon to transport the produce to market. However, the "sweat equity" was high. Usually, the entire family worked long hours because there were no hired workers.

Truck farmers grew season-specific crops year round to use best their family labor force, to spread the risk of crop failure or low prices, and to have an ongoing cash flow. Thus they introduced many new varieties of vegetables and fruits that came to represent the diverse agriculture of this region.

John S. Davis was one of the earliest windmill makers in San Joaquin County. By 1858, he was manufacturing about sixty windmills per year. In 1883, Richard F. Wilson purchased the company and renamed it the Davis Regulating Windmill Company of Stockton. The Stockton Daily Evening Mail in 1891 called Wilson's Davis Regulating Windmill Company "one of the most successful windmill manufacturers in the country."

Wilson's company made a twenty-two foot wooden windmill called the Improved Davis Windmill. The windmill could be connected to a rocker arm between two wells—one pump worked on the down stroke and the other on the return stroke. It was said that the Improved Davis could lift five hundred gallons of water per minute, or more than two hundred thousand gallons per day. The Improved Davis Windmill in the Museum's collection may be the only surviving example. A Linden truck farmer used it to irrigate his vegetable garden.

The Improved Davis Windmill and other large windmills—some as large as thirty feet in diameter—were called "Italian windmills" because Italian truck farmers used them extensively. Many truck farmers continued to use these wooden windmills long after the switch to galvanized metal mills because the metal models required more frequent maintenance. Wooden windmills, which were ultimately replaced by gasoline and electrical pumps, often lasted thirty years or more.

These giant windmills were typically mounted on twenty- to thirty-foot towers. Many of the Improved Davis Windmills had no weather vanes or rudders—the example in the Museum collection has one—so they had to be tied into the wind with ropes attached to a tail shaft. When the wind blew too hard, they were secured edgewise to the wind to protect the fragile wood fans.

For protection from winter storms, owners often disassembled the giant wooden mills and stored them flat in the fields or tied them upright to the towers. This was a difficult task and was treated like a "barnraising"—friends and neighbors pitched in to help. After the workers secured the windmill, they brought out wine and the gathering became social. The work party moved from neighbor to neighbor until all the windmills were put away. In the spring, they brought out block and tackle and reassembled the big windmills.

We hope to include the Improved Davis Windmill in an upcoming exhibition on truck farming. If any readers have additional information, stories, or photos on the Improved Davis Windmill, "Italian windmills," or truck farming in San Joaquin County, please comment or contact me by e-mail at davidstuart@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

David Stuart is the executive director and CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.

You must be logged in to post a comment.