The Windmill

Vol. XIV No. 1 - FALL/WINTER 2002-3

By: Carl Helbig, September 16, 1997

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. All they were using it for was storage of boxes and paper. The boiler had been stolen and it was basically a garage.

Besides all that paper, they left a 40 foot tower on the roof. It was a skinny thing with cables holding it up. On the top sat what looked like a little airplane with a propeller. It turned whichever way the wind was blowing and its propeller must at one time have measured the wind velocity. It looked happy up there whirling away!

The cables holding the tower were fastened to the masonry parapet walls. 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 in the windstorms.

We worried that it was damaging the building. If it fell no one knew what kind of damage it could do. 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 upon by the Board of Directors that the tower had to come down. We got one bid for $4,000 and another for $1,500. I felt that was too expensive and began thinking how I would take it down. The masonry company that I used to work for owned its own cranes, so I am used to working with one. My idea was to hook a crane to it and lift it down. I asked my good friend Mr. Butzeline how I could get a hook. “Why don’t you use one of your tuck pointing hooks?” he answered. We normally hook over the top of the wall that you tie your rope to when you use a stage. We could use it turned upside down.

Since I couldn’t do this alone I began planning how to get help. When I was involved with the Methodist Church, I was taught that to get people interested in the church you had to give them little projects to do. I felt I could get four of our men on the board of the historical society to cut each of the cables after the crane had been hooked to the tower. I thought I would present this idea to Board.

On the Saturday of the meeting I got there just as it was ending. It seems that they had voted on whether or not to allow me to take the tower down. One of the wives said, “I don’t want my husband up on that roof.” Therefore, they voted that I couldn’t take it down. I began to think of another plan.

In the Business to Business phone directory I found a tower company. They agreed to take it down without looking at it for between $680-$880. With president Kathy Gemperle’s permission I gave them the job.

In as much 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.

The head of the crew, I’ll call him Chief, put on a safety belt and after checked the cables to see how loose they were. He then climbed up on the top of tower and rescued the windmill, taking it down with him. Then they cut all the cables loose. It was a calm day with no winds, so nothing happened.

Next, they hack-sawed 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 the other and told his helper to push it over. They had already taken a small tower that was also on the roof and laid it down, hoping to get the larger one to fall on it and prevent any damage to the roof.

Then the Chief told his helper to lift it 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 pushing straight down. We kept lifting and moving at little at a time. The bottom was curved but the top was 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 right across the other tower as the chief had planned. We shook hands and congratulated each other.

We were not done yet. The Chief decided to let the 40 foot tower down to the ground over the front of the building. He tied a rope to the top and we let it over the side. But after the bottom was on the ground, there was still too much on the roof so Mr. Butzeline had to go down to the sidewalk.

His job was to keep the bottom from being out of balance and kicking. We then moved it over and let the rest of it down on the side of the building. I don’t know if they thought that they could get that 40 foot tower on that little truck, but after they got it down, they cut it up in three pieces.

The Chief wanted to take the windmill. He said they could use it when they built those real tall towers several hundred feet in the air. Kathy’s orders were “keep it.” The way the help 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 that it would be a lesser amount because they got the windmill; it was not.

Since Mr. Butzeline and I had helped as much as we did I felt it was really a four-man job, the way his men did it, and we should be charged the lesser amount. So I sent a letter. The answer was that his men didn’t need any help. We sent letters back and forth. Meanwhile Kathy was chiding me for letting them have the windmill.

These letters were addressed to a place 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 get the windmill now. It had come back off a job and was at their warehouse in Franklin Park. I made the drive out there on my rescue mission.

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

I miss the tower on the firehouse. You could see it when driving down Ashland Avenue three or four blocks away, with the windmill doing its job, giving the wind direction and seeing how fast it was spinning, how high the wind was. The firehouse has lost some of its status now. You knew it was under the tower, like a landmark. It seems smaller now, lost in the trees. I wish we could have kept it up.