A Fortunate Wind

By Lee Johnson

Lee Johnson & Ken Smith getting Jacobs wind gneratorsChapter One – Grass Range, July 1975

It was a gorgeous windy summer day in 1975. We were in north central Montana. Ken and I drove a small Toyota station wagon from Ecotope Group in Seattle. I was from RAIN: Journal of Appropriate Technology in Portland.  

We left Round Up after an incredibly hearty and healthy organic foods breakfast at Wilbur and Elizabeth Ross’s big white two story house. We had just taught a domestic solar water heater do-it-yourself workshop for 2 days to the farmer-rancher members of the Alternative Energy Resource Organization, a non-profit based in Helena and fighting against coal strip mining at places like Coalstrip in SE Montana. It had been a very successful workshop and people liked us, appreciated how hard we worked to teach them.

The AERO people had told us there were still Jacobs wind generators to be had just a short drive north in Grass Range. Hans Meyer and Ben Wolff of Windworks, a grad student/hippie appropriate technology R & D workshop in Mukwonago Wisconsin, had bought some for $20 each the previous summer of 1974. But they didn’t get them all. Wilbur and Elizabeth said we could crash at their house if we wanted and use it as a base for our search. So we followed them home.

Grass Range had a farmer’s tavern but not much else at the crossroads. We drove north toward Canada until we saw a farmhouse and barn close off the east side of  the county road. We slowly drove the gravel road up to the farmhouse and the farmer’s wife came out to meet us as we stopped in the large area between the house and the barn.

We explained to her who were, that we’d just finished teaching people how to build solar water heaters in the state capital, and that we were looking to buy old wind-electric generators. She said maybe her husband could help us and that we could either wait there for him drinking her iced tea or drive up the road to see him in the field. We drove back out to the main paved road and headed north again. We spotted her husband on his tractor plowing a field close by the east side of the road.

It was clear from plowing that he would be coming near the road again. We parked by the side of the road, turned the motor off and waited. In the meantime we ate more of our gooey but scrumptious anchovy, cheese, mustard and mayonnaise sandwiches on Elizabeth’s natural homemade whole grain wheat bread.

We waved to the farmer. The farmer plowed near us, turned off his tractor and motioned us to walk over to him. We didn’t know how lucky we two Vietnam veterans, him a Texas A & M “Longhorn”/U. S. Army chopper pilot and me a Carleton College “Knight”/U. S. Navy cryptographer, were about to become.

Chapter 2 – Favors & Farmer’s Daughters

Ken Smith and I explained to the farmer that his wife had sent us to see him, saying, while wearing a kind of secret know-it-all smile, “Well , I think my husband can help you fellows out.” We told him we were driving around looking for wind-electric turbines to buy and asked if he knew of any for sale.

He said, “You boys are in luck. I took the Jacobs I had on my tower down a few years ago. It’s still sitting in the hay in the barn’s workshop. I’ll be glad to sell it to you at a fair price if you’ll do me a favor. Let me finish plowing. You guys go back to my wife and tell her I’ve invited you to stay for supper.”  We said, “Yes sir” and drove back down state highway (insert no.) to his farm.

Ken and I wondered how much we’d have to pay for a 3 kilowatt Jacobs with the 1945 model’s advanced prop-feathering hub. All our home windmill expert friends (all 12 of them nationwide) agreed it was the Cadillac of small wind generators. The Dunlite from Australia came in second. How much more than Windworks $20 would we have to pay? We only had a few hundred dollars left between us, even after getting paid for doing AERO’s solar workshop. Maybe $50 would be fair. $100 would mean we couldn’t buy more than 2 or 3.

But we were most curious what the “favor” was that he thought we could do for him. What could two young veterans from Washington and Oregon’s biggest cities do for a Montana farmer way out in the middle of nowhere?

When we got back to the farmer’s wife she said, “I thought that’s what he’d say. He’s been wanting to get rid of that heavy hunk of metal on the barn floor for the past  3 years. He’s even groused about stubbing his toes on it and one time almost tripping over it. Just the work of lifting it up into the truck and hauling it away to our scrap metal pile in the ravine would be exhausting and take a lot of time out of his work day.”  We asked her, “He mentioned we could buy it at a fair price IF we did him a favor. Do you know what favor he might have in mind? Neither of us know anything about farm work after all. What could he want US for?”

She gave us that knowing Mona Lisa smile again and said, “Well, it’s best he explain it to you. I’m sure he’ll do that over dinner. Do you guys like homemade cole slaw? Pickled beets and cucumbers? We’ll have a nice filling meat roast, potatoes and gravy dinner with plenty of my canned vegetables. My daughter knows how to make excellent real mayonnaise for our salad greens, and we’ll have some fresh-picked radishes, carrots and celery from the garden.”

So we sat outside in the cooling evening breeze, drinking more of her iced tea, just waiting. She went in to make dinner. And we’d not yet met the daughter. We could hear them talking and laughing thru the screen door.

What were they giggling about? Was there something funny about us?? And was this the proverbial Farmer’s Daughter of those visiting salesmen tales?

(To be continued)