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80-year-old enjoys careful restoration of old windmills

Thu., Aug. 25, 2011

In 2008, when we last visited Hugh Grim, two towering vintage windmills stood sentry in his yard at the southwestern edge of Spokane. The retired construction foreman had discovered a fascinating, labor-intensive hobby – restoring these relics of rural engineering.

When asked if there was another windmill in his future, Grim said, “We’ll have to see what happens.”

What happened was a 1907 Red Cross windmill and a 1924 Flint & Walling, both of which now grace his lawn on their respective towers.

In addition, a 1910 Dempster on a small stud tower sits near Grim’s shop, ready for its Spokane County Interstate Fair debut.

A green sign affixed to a tree lets visitors know they’ve arrived at Windmill Farm. Not that there could be any doubt – the stately, spinning antiques are visible for miles.

Grim’s neighbor discovered the Dempster windmill on a scrap pile at a local recycling company, and gave him a call. “I beat it down there,” said Grim. “It looked pretty bad. The tail section was missing.”

But Grim often spots potential beauty in what someone else considered junk. He rescued this bit of history and set to work restoring it to its former glory. Using pictures, he fashioned the tail and the open gears. The motor originally featured an oil-soaked maple wood bearing. Grim made a new one out of Lignum-Vitae, a type of wood with natural lubricating oils.

“Some of the cast-iron pieces were broken too,” he said. Then he grinned. “I learned how to weld.”

After its fair appearance, the windmill, designed in 1910 and manufactured in 1914, will be mounted on a permanent tower and join the others on Grim’s two-acre lot. These machines aren’t used to harvest wind energy – instead, they harness a bit of the past.

Though he’s loath to play favorites, Grim admits to a special fondness for the Red Cross. “In my opinion, it’s the best mechanically.”

He spotted this treasure hanging in a barn in Otis Orchards. “It had been painted red, white and blue,” he said and grimaced. “I stripped it and found the Red Cross name. It was made in 1907, and sold by Spokane Implement Company.”

Grim’s detailed restoration included a coat of bright red paint across the tips of the tin blades. From atop its 20-foot tower, the fan turned slowly in the breeze – pure poetry in motion amid the pines.

Nearby, the Flint & Walling turns atop its 33-foot tower. The only sound in the gorgeous afternoon sun is the soft creak of its gears. “Hey! It’s a hundred years old, it’s entitled to a little creaking,” said Grim.

He gazed up at its rotating blades. “I found it in Post Falls in an antique shop,” said Grim. “It was in really bad shape – the motor was full of dirt.”

But with time, attention and loving care, another masterpiece appeared under Grim’s capable hands. His research showed the windmill was originally sold by one of Spokane’s oldest businesses, Mitchell Lewis & Staver. It features Timken bearings and a ball bearing turntable.

Slim, fit and tanned at 80, Grim still scrambles up the towers to service the open-geared windmills when needed.

Passers-by often stop to gawk at these remnants of bygone days and he’s happy to share each windmill’s story. But to those who’d like to own one of his treasures: “They’re not for sale.”

He doesn’t discuss the hours or the dollars spent on his hobby, and his wife, Dolores, remains philosophical about it. “It keeps him out of the bars,” she said, grinning. “And I cannot believe how much time we waste just watching them.”

Grim shrugged and smiled. “We can almost know before Tom Sherry, which direction the wind is coming from.”

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