Kane County History: The Company That Made Batavia 'Windmill Capital of The World'

Kane County History: The Company That Made Batavia ‘Windmill Capital of The World’

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. This article was contributed by Batavia Depot Museum Director Kate Garrett. All photos are courtesy of the Batavia Depot Museum.

A view of the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company plant from Water Street looking east. Most of that building is today Water Street Studios and has been repurposed and maintained.

The day 30-something John Burnham pitched his new tech idea to 20-something Daniel Halladay, it’s doubtful either of them had any notion that their partnership would change the American landscape forever.

Batavia’s fame as the Windmill Capital of the World actually begins in New England in the conversations of these two entrepreneurs. Burnham envisioned a machine that would safely and efficiently harness the power of the wind and put it at the beck and call of the farmer on the plains; the traveler on the rails, and Halladay had the engineering skill to make it real.

Wind-powered engines are an ancient technology, but operating them had been the realm of skilled and trained millers and millwrights. Like sailing a boat, it took practice to catch the wind to keep the machinery running evenly, and wisdom to avoid the dangers of running a machine producing roughly 50 horsepower.

Fabyan Forest Preserve windmill.

In Kane County, we have a working example of an 1850s Dutch-style wind mill at the Fabyan Forest Preserve. Watching the volunteer millers hang the sails and turn the massive head to catch the wind is a remarkable sight.

Dutch mills were rarely more practical in hilly New England than water mills, but as farmers, ranchers, and the steam engines of the railroad moved west into the prairie, wind power was plentiful where racing streams often were not. The time was right for Burnham’s big idea.

Burnham’s youth in Vermont was spent helping his family manufacture and sell water pumps. Daniel apprenticed with a machinist, eventually purchasing an interest in the machine shops of Ellington, Connecticut. John saw the potential to sell automated wind-powered water pumps, but he needed Daniel’s engineering skill to make them safe, efficient and affordable.

Daniel Halladay designed a windmill that would not only automatically adjust to catch the wind, but also disengage under dangerous conditions. He secured a patent in 1854 and began manufacture. Now it was up to partner John Burnham to sell the new technology.

Enter John VanNortwick

Batavia Depot Museum records indicate that these are employees of USWE. None of the workers are identified by name.

Undaunted by lethargic initial sales, Burnham turned his sights to the “middle west,” eventually making the acquaintance of John VanNortwick in Chicago. Burnham must have had a special talent for sharing his vision. Not only had he found a brilliant engineer to bring his idea to life, now he had the ear of the consulting engineer of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad.

VanNortwick, understanding how Halladay’s invention would solve the perennial water problem of steam engines in the arid American West, not only offered to buy windmills, he offered the investment capital to move the whole Halladay production to his town Batavia.

The three men together formed the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company. VanNortwick built a new limestone factory along Water Street, just a block away from his home, and served as the first president and general manager.

Both Burnham and Halladay moved to modest but elegant homes in Batavia and put their skills to work as sales agent and superintendent respectively. By 1888, the company reported over 4 million in sales and the arid plains had new access to safe, clean, water.

None of that would have been possible without the vision and dedication of John Burnham, the engineering mind of Daniel Halladay, and the investment of John VanNortwick. Three people each bringing what they were best at to the table and creating something greater than the sum of its parts.

Feature Photo Caption

This colored engraving is from the 1871 Kane County Atlas.


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