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In Search of the Lone Prairie Windmill
Nov 12, 2012
The last part of October found me cruising the back roads of southeastern South Dakota in search of the prairie windmill. I was looking specifically for ones that stood away from tree belts and visual clutter. These are the type that I love to position against a sunset sky or dramatic cloud scene. The problem is, such windmills are proving harder and harder to find. In my travels, I noticed that there are far more windmills in disrepair than not. I would say roughly 80% don’t have blades anymore. I suppose it is a sign of better technology as well as better farming and ranching methods in rural America. Still, there is something special about seeing a prairie windmill in a farmyard, or even better, standing alone against the elements in an open stretch of pasture. It is sort of hard to describe. I guess a scene like that simply reminds me of home, for lack of a better explanation.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that well-composed photos of these prairie sentinels seem to resound well in photo contests and other showings as well. It seems folks still like their windmills. As a photographer I’m drawn to them as well. South Dakota’s regular offerings of majestic sunsets often work best if a silhouette of a recognizable object is added in the frame. Whether in the foreground or on the horizon line, a well-placed windmill silhouette can transform a nice sunset shot into a breathtaking photo infused with a common piece of symbolism. This allows personal emotions and memories to be added to the photo on an individual and unique basis. I think that is what good art is all about. That said, I readily admit that such high-minded thoughts rarely enter my mind when out shooting photographs. My method is simply finding a scene with potential and then working it to get a shot that speaks to me. Within those moments are where the fun and joy of photography are for me.
One early summer night a few years ago, I was back home near Isabel, SD shooting the Milky Way in the southern sky with a lone windmill in the foreground. The night was very dark and I was working alone. All of the sudden, the windmill began to turn and whine. Soon it was pulsing a faint metallic tone while turning briskly. I was a bit startled since there was no wind at ground level. The sound was loud in the otherwise still night, reminding me of the opening scene of one of the best spaghetti westerns of all time, Once Upon A Time in the West. At first it was spooky, but after I told myself it was simply a wind current well above ground, it became sort of a soothing sound as I worked. When it stopped turning about 10 minutes later, the night was too quiet.
This September I was chasing the last big thunderstorm of the season near Epiphany, SD, and happened to stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse with a windmill near it just off the county road. I set up my camera in the post-storm wind and pointed it at the scene with plenty of room in the sky to try to catch some lightning. I got a couple decent shots, but the cool thing was being able to go back and re-shoot the scene in October against an evening sky on a nearly full moon night. Those old windmills have seen a lot of storms and skies, yet they still stand and endure, even if the times have passed them by. There’s probably a good life lesson in there somewhere — and even if not, a lone windmill standing against the South Dakota sky will always remind me of home.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on South Dakota's state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.