The Windmill

Vol. VIII No. 2 - FALL 1997

The Windmill

By: Carl Helbig, Chair Building Committee

When the Edgewater Historical Society bought the abandoned firehouse from the City of Chicago, I think the city was glad to get rid of it.

Seems to me all they were using it for was storage of boxes of paper. Besides all that paper, they left a 40-foot tower on the roof. The tower was a tall, skinny thing with cables holding it up; on the top sat what looked like a little airplane. The “airplane” turned whichever way the wind was blowing and its propeller showed the wind speed. It looked happy up there whirling away like a busy little windmill!

The tower’s guide wires were fastened to the masonry parapet walls. Now, masonry can support a lot of weight vertically, but it doesn’t have much strength horizontally. Consequently, the walls were being pulled in by the cables during windstorms.

We worried not only about it damaging the building in that way, but about what kind of damage it could do if it ever fell. Every time we had a big wind, I would worry, expecting a phone call that it had fallen. I was always glad when I saw it still standing.

It was agreed; the tower had to come down. We got one contract bid for $4000 and another for $1500. I felt both were too expensive and began thinking how I, personally, would take it down. The masonry company I used to work for owned its own cranes, so I am used to working with one. My thoughts were to hook a crane to the tower and lift it down from the roof. So I asked my good friend Mr. Butzeline, a structural engineer for the Rock Island Railroad, how I could get a hook.

“Why don’t you use one of your tuck-pointing hooks,” he answered.

Tuck-pointing hooks normally hook over the top of the wall to which you tie your rope when you use a “stage.” We could use one turned upside down.

When I was involved with the Methodist Church, I was taught that to get people interested in the church, it helped to give them little projects to do. With that in mind, I felt I could get four EHS volunteers to cut each of the eight cables after the crane had hooked itself to the tower.

From the beginning of the Museum project, I insisted we needed a structural engineer to tell us what structural weaknesses the building has and what we would have to do to correct them to keep the building safe and sound. Since the EHS Board had not yet approved hiring one, I arranged for a Chicago building inspector to look at the building on a Saturday on his own time, unofficially. We had breakfast together.

Unfortunately, the inspector said he knew nothing about structural engineering. His specialty was back porches. Since the firehouse had no back porch, the only thing he was in a position to do would be to write us up for having a messy backyard. Not very helpful.

A Board meeting was held that same Saturday. I got there just as it was ending and was informed they had already voted not to allow volunteers to take the tower down. One of the women had declared, “I don’t want my husband up on that roof!” The rest had voiced concern over accident liability potential. So much for “Plan B.”

Looking in the Business-to-Business phone book, I found a tower company. They agreed to take it down, sight unseen, for between $680 and $880. With President Kathy Gemperle’s permission, I gave them the job.

Inasmuch as Mr. Butzeline had helped me figure out how to take the tower down, I asked if he’d like to watch “how the experts do it.”

Two men in a half-ton truck showed up at 8:00 a.m. on the agreed-to day. They carried a lot of tools and a big spool of rope up to the roof.

I forget his name, so I’ll call him “Chief.” Chief put on a safety belt and, after checking the cables to see how loose they were, climbed up to the top of the tower and rescued the windmill, taking it down with him. The two men then cut all the cables loose. It was a calm day with no winds, so nothing happened.

They then hacksawed the tower’s four supporting legs. The last leg was hard to cut because it bent with all the weight of the tower on that one leg. Still nothing happened. Standing free like that, there was no way of knowing where it would fall. Chief asked Mr. Butzeline to hold one of the cables while he held another and told his helper to push it over. They had laid down another small tower that was also on the roof, hoping to get the big one to fall on it and not damage the roof.

Then Chief told his helper to lift the big tower off its supports. He couldn’t lift it; it was real heavy. So I helped. We moved it a little bit. Forty feet of tower is heavy straight down. We kept lifting and moving a little at a time. The bottom was curved, but the top was still straight up. Every time we moved it, the legs would dig through the tar paper. Finally when we had lifted and dragged it about four feet from where we started, it fell across the other tower as hoped for. We shook hands and congratulated each other.

Chief next decided to let the big tower down to the ground over the front of the building. He tied a rope to the top and eased it over the side. After the bottom was down on the ground, there was still too much on the roof, so Mr. Butzeline had to go down on the sidewalk and keep the bottom from getting out of balance and kicking. We moved it over and let the rest of it down on the side of the building.

I don’t know if they originally thought they could get that 40-foot tower on their little truck but, after they got it down on the ground, they cut it up in three pieces.

They wanted to take the windmill. They said they could reuse it when they built some other real tall tower several hundred feet in the air. Kathy Gemperle’s orders had been “keep it.” But the way they begged for it made me feel that knowing the wind speed and direction might save someone’s life, so I let them have it.

I waited for the bill, hoping it would be the lesser quoted amount; it was not.

I wrote back to the company. Since Mr. Butzeline and I had helped as much as we did, I felt it was really a four-man job, the way it was done, and we should be charged the lesser amount. They answered my letter, saying their men hadn’t really needed us. We sent three letters back and forth. Meanwhile, Kathy was chiding me for letting them have the windmill.

I had been sending the letters to an address in Park Ridge. In my last letter, I asked if I could have the windmill back. After some time, a secretary called and said I could come and pick up the windmill. It had come back off a job and was at their warehouse in Franklin Park.

It was a big place, like an airport hangar, with three or four big, new trucks and a lot of men going about their business. I found the guy in charge. The secretary had told him I was coming after I had called her about how to find the place. He, too, didn’t want to give up the windmill. It still had a long cable attached to it with a lot of little wires inside. I asked if he would cut the cable off. He agreed to, but only if he could leave enough on so it could be reconnected, if I ever wanted to bring it back. It now lies on its side in my basement.

I miss that tower on the firehouse. You could see it from three or four blocks away when driving down Ashland Avenue, with the windmill doing its job, gleefully reporting wind direction and showing, by how fast it was spinning, how high the wind was. Like a child holding a pinwheel toy - a landmark at play.

The firehouse has lost some of its status now. You always used to know it was under the tower. The building seems smaller now, lost in the trees.

I wish we could have kept it up.