ActivePaper Archive Farmers developed alternative energies out of necessity - Denver Post, 6/21/2008

Farmers developed alternative energies out of necessity




Denver Post Columnist

The more things change, so say the French, the more they stay the same.

And so it is that I look at Colorado’s burgeoning “new energy economy” and see the old technologies I wrestled with while growing up on a hardscrabble farm in the northeastern part of the state in the 1950s.

Wind and solar power are now state-of-the-art. But that was also true when my great-grandfather Redelf Ewegen bought two railroad sections of land in Phillips County in 1887.

The Union Pacific railroad that opened up the Great Plains to white settlement was largely financed by the sale of every other section of land (1 square mile) for 20 miles north and south along its route. The route ran through Julesburg and our farm, immediately north of Amherst, is 20 miles due south of those tracks.

The grasslands of what was then known as “The Great American Desert” were perfect for grazing cattle. But the problem arose of how to find water for human needs and livestock. Because the nearest rivers, the South Platte and the Republican, were each about 20 miles away, the answer was to dig a well.

But on the high plains, you have to dig 100 feet or more to tap the vast Ogallala aquifer — more today, because it’s dropping fast because of overuse of irrigation. Digging a well is easy enough, but the problem is how to lift the water. A gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds, and lifting even 10 gallons 100 feet is equivalent to bench pressing 100 pounds 80 times. Since watering stock, washing clothes and irrigating a modest vegetable garden can take hundreds or thousands of gallons, it’s just not practical to pull up so much water by hand or with a windlass.

Robert Caro’s superb biography of Lyndon Johnson, “The Path to Power,” paints a compelling picture of the hardships that carrying water inflicted on the unfortunate women who usually had to perform that task.

The Texas hill country didn’t have enough reliable wind to make windmills practical. Thus, farms clustered near creeks, and the women had to carry water from the creek for household needs and washing. Caro writes of old women he interviewed and how their shoulders were permanently bent from that aching ordeal.

I have a yoke I bought in that last, best place for antiques, Leadville, that pioneers used to carry water. If you set it on your neck and put your hands on the ends to balance it, you can carry buckets of water from the attached chains. But carrying even 10 gallons this way is a load of about 100 pounds, and it takes its toll.

Happily for the pioneers of eastern Colorado, we had wind in abundance. Thus our faithful windmill let nature do the work of keeping our cistern and stock tanks filled and our garden watered. Even though the REA reached us in the 1930s, we used that windmill to pump water well into the 1960s, until we finally replaced it with an electric pump.

While we had electricity and running water in our house, we didn’t have a bathroom or water heater. To bathe in winter, we’d heat water on a propane stove. For washing clothes, we’d heat water on a wood burning stove in our wash house that we’d fuel with corn cobs.

My father, Ralph Ewegen, came up with the idea of a solar-powered water heater because he wanted an easy way for us to clean up after a hard day in the fields. He simply mounted a 55-gallon drum atop an old smokehouse near the windmill and let the summer sun heat it up. We’d wash the day’s grime off without paying a penny to the power company.

Today, when I see the new windmills of eastern Colorado sending pollution-free power to the cities or see rooftop-mounted photovoltaic cells or solar water heaters, I just smile and say, “Welcome back.”

The funny thing is, my ancestors never knew they were pioneering environmentalists. They just thought they were poor folks getting by.

But they were rich in self-reliance and ingenuity — and I applaud the fact that our society is finally returning to those bedrock values.