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Windmills in Berkeley have become rare

By Susan Cerny
Saturday November 17, 2001

Windmills that pumped water from wells up to a holding tank above were once common backyard structures in Berkeley and they appear in many old photographs. Other sources of domestic water were wells with hand pumps and water piped from hillside reservoirs or springs.  

The earliest modern European windmills appeared in the 12th century and over time were adapted to a variety of tasks including pumping water, sawing wood and grinding grains. 

The water-pumping windmill does not actually pump the water but rather pushes it up a pipe. The rotation of the windmill blades causes a rod (that is inside a cylinder below the water level) to move up and down pushing water up the pipe to a holding tank. The windmill is mechanically simple and dependable. 

Water-pumping windmills were essential to the settlement of the western United States and permitted farming far from streams and rivers. Windmills were used to pump water for the steam railroad trains that once provided the primary source of transportation across the continent.  

In 1870 lighter and more efficient steel blades were developed and in the 1890s small wind turbine generators supplied electricity to rural areas. With the enactment of the Rural Electrification Act after World War II federal funds were used to construct utility power lines in rural areas which brought an end to the use of wind for generating electricity. However, with the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels interest in wind power has been renewed.  

The windmill pictured here is located behind a two-story, corner-grocery styled building at 1201 Sixth St., but can be best seen from around the corner on Harrison Street. The building has a sign on its south wall proclaiming it to be the Grand Food Market, but the market has been gone for decades.  

The building was built in 1908 and it once housed Arcieri Dairy, the last dairy in Berkeley. There were actually cows in the fields across the street, where the new U.S. Postal Service building now stands, until the early 1950s.  

Today there are only two complete windmill structures remaining in Berkeley and three other structures that once served as the base for windmills but have been converted to other uses. The other intact windmill is located at 1129 Francisco St. and dates from about 1892. The remnants of four others can be seen behind 1830 Delaware St., 1141-3 Hearst Ave., and another on Delaware and one on Fulton Street near Blake Street. Are there any others? 



Susan Cerny is author of "Berkeley Landmarks" and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.