Cowboy Jam Session: Wind, water and songs of the West |

Cowboy Jam Session: Wind, water and songs of the West

Jeri L. Dowbrowski

Weeks of hot, dry and windy weather, following a winter and spring with below average moisture, have left our county thirsting for rain. A small area of average precipitation exists to the east of us, but nationwide 1,297 counties in 29 states have been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as disaster areas. It is the most widespread drought in seven decades.

Short grass, withering crops and disappearing stock ponds have stockmen and farmers on edge. Those who don't have pipelines or windmills to supply water for livestock nervously eye reservoirs designed to fill with runoff. They wonder if the water will last through the grazing season; they wonder about the quality of the water.

Before the advent of the internal combustion engine and the Rural Electrification Administration, windmills brought ground water to the surface. They're still in use, but in declining numbers. They're most common in remote locations where building power lines would be difficult or cost prohibitive.

University of Oklahoma Press reissued American Windmills: An Album of Historic Photographs in February 2012 (168 pages, black and white photographs, paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0806142494). Written by windmill historian T. Lindsay Baker, this engaging book contains historic images from across the U.S., with an emphasis on the Great Plains. Nearly 200 photos are featured, gleaned from more than 2,000.

Included among them are a good many from the personal collection of professional windmiller B. H. "Tex" Burdick, who chronicled his employees erecting and maintaining windmills from the 1920s through the 1940s. I marvel at Burdick's faithfulness in photographing what once was mundane. Also featured are Salomon D. Butcher's glass-plate images taken in Nebraska from the 1800s to the 1900s. He's known for capturing the homesteads that sprang up around the wood-and-metal towers. Windmills made settlement of the arid West possible.

Still other photographs come from the corporate archives of windmill manufacturers. The book offers a glimpse inside windmill factories, including the Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company, Beatrice, NE. My paternal grandfather was born in Beatrice. When his father established the Janssen Mercantile at Coalwood, MT, he stocked Dempster windmills along with Massey Harris implements and general merchandise.

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Not only were windmills a standard fixture for watering livestock and quenching thirsty gardens, they harnessed the wind to grind grain, pumped water for steam locomotives, and provided domestic water in both rural and urban settings. They made it possible for resorts to offer city conveniences in a rural setting. In the introduction, photography historian John Carter discusses the importance of windmills and our decades-long obsession with photographing them. The sweeping cover photo was taken circa 1880 in San Diego, CA.

American Windmills retails for $24.95. Look for it in bookstores and from online sellers, including OU Press ( It would make an excellent gift for those who remember the era of the windmill or simply appreciate their form.

Trinity Seely knows extremes in the availability of water. She grew up on an isolated cattle ranch near Chilcotin, British Columbia, where her family operated a guest ranch. While their father took guests fishing in the many back-country lakes, Trinity and her sisters ran the dude string, milked the cows, cleaned cabins and prepared meals. In the evenings, the family entertained guests, playing acoustic instruments and singing.

Today, Trinity lives on the historic Handcart Ranch, formally known as the Sun Ranch, in central Wyoming. Pioneers traveling on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails passed through the area, drawn by the Sweetwater River Valley's life-giving water and grass. Trinity says the isolation is much the same as in Canada. But, it's cowboy country, and that suits her, her husband, and their young family.

Her love of the West, wide-open spaces, and the cowboy culture come through in her debut album, Trinity Seely. Released in December 2011, the 12-track CD is chock-full of original music written from a cowgirl's point of view. Among my favorites are "Rides for the Brand," "A Cowboy Song," and "Middle of Nowhere." The nuances of her writing reveal the depth of Trinity's experiences.

Country music singer/songwriter Brenn Hill and multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Ryan Tilby produced the album. The quality of the studio work, and Trinity's smart song writing and strong vocals, earn high marks all around. (Listen to two full-length tracks at I sincerely hope to hear more from Trinity. She has a lot to share about the real, contemporary West.

Trinity Seely sells for $18.95 (postage paid). Order online at or from Trinity Seely, 47510 W Hwy 220, Alcova, WY 82620; (801) 636-7513.