Windmills that pumped water from wells up to a holding tank were once common backyard structures, not just in the countryside but also in urban settings such as Berkeley, and they appear in many old photographs.
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, once the primary source of transportation across the continent. Other sources of domestic water—before large municipal water companies such as East Bay Municipal Water District—were wells with hand pumps and water piped from hillside reservoirs or springs.
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 after World War II of the Rural Electrification Act, federal funds were used to construct utility power lines in rural areas, bringing an end to the use of wind for generating electricity. However, with the need to reduce fossil fuel dependence interest in wind power has been renewed.
The windmill pictured here is located behind a two-story, corner-grocery-styled building at 1201 6th St., but can best be 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 once housed Arcieri Dairy, the last dairy in Berkeley. Cows actually grazed in the fields across the street until the early 1950s, but now there is a starkly new U.S. Postal Service building on the former field.
This is the last intact windmill and water tank structure in Berkeley. In 2001, another long-standing windmill—located at 1129 Francisco St. and dating from about 1892—collapsed onto its water tank in a winter storm. Hidden behind a few houses lurk remnants of windmill structures whose bases have been converted to other uses. The remnants of three can be seen behind 1830 Delaware, 1141-3 Hearst and 705 Delaware. These windmill bases are recognizable because their walls are angled inwardly so they could carry the weight of the water saved in the tank above.
Susan Cerny is author of the book “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.