H.M. Fletcher grew as tired of buying feed for the horses that pulled
his wagon as future generations of Texans wearied of high gasoline
Could be he figured he might make some money. Or maybe he just decided
to have a little fun.
Whatever his inspiration, the Plainview
man took action on an idea he believed would put Old Dobbin to pasture
for good -- a wagon that did not require four-legged energy. He
was not alone in thinking about other ways to get around, of course.
Already, horseless carriages powered by gasoline engines competed
with buggies and wagons on the nation’s streets and unpaved roadways.
But Fletcher envisioned a different sort of horseless carriage,
one that did not rely on fossil fuel. His invention would harness
as its power source one of nature’s elemental forces: the wind.
Some time in 1910, Fletcher pulled a wagon into his barn, laid out
his tools and went to work. What emerged definitely got the attention
of his Hale County
neighbors. In fact, folks were still talking about it 70 years later.
the wind as a means of locomotion was not a new idea. Man had been
plying the seas and rivers in sailing vessels for centuries. Even
using the wind to propel a wagon was not an original concept.
In 1853, entrepreneur William Thomas demonstrated a wind-powered
prairie schooner to the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth in what was
then the Kansas Territory. Thomas’ invention extended 25 feet in
length. It had 12-foot wheels and a single sail on a 7-foot mast.
Thomas envisioned a fleet of sailing wagons rolling along the Santa
Fe Trail, moving people and goods across the plains. But as one
historian later put it, when the prototype wind wagon crashed, Thomas’
potential financial backers became Doubting Thomases and pulled
their support. The would-be CEO of the Overland Navigation Co. blew
out of Kansas sans windfall.
Samuel Peppard of Jefferson County, Kan. was the next creative thinker
to build a wind wagon. What became of his 1860 effort is best summarized
by what folks soon called it -- Peppard’s Folly.
A half century later in the Texas
Panhandle, Fletcher concluded that hoisting a sail on a wagon
was the wrong approach. If windmills could suck water out of the
earth, he reasoned, they could power a wagon.
So Fletcher raised a windmill in the back of a wagon. If he made
any drawings of his invention, they are not known today. This much
is surmised: Gears connected to the sucker rod somehow turned the
wheels. He also developed a steering system.
As late as the 1970s, a few old-timers in the Panhandle
remembered having heard about the wind wagon. They said Fletcher’s
big moment came when he climbed in his windmill wagon and tried
to ride his invention from Plainview
He made it as far as Canyon,
about 30 miles south of Amarillo.
North of town, a hill proved insurmountable.
L.L. Roser, eight years old in 1910, told a correspondent for the
Amarillo Globe-News in 1981 that he had seen the wind wagon.
“It was just a regular windmill on an ordinary wagon,” Rosser said.
“The wagon didn’t have any specially built bed, and the windmill
wasn’t the biggest there was, although it did make the wagon move.”
Another old-timer, Harold Hamilton, told the Amarillo newspaper
he also remembered seeing Fletcher’s contraption. “Mr. Fletcher
also was going to plow with it if it developed properly,” he said.
Fletcher’s invention did not require grain or gas to roll across
the High Plains, but it did need wind. A strong breeze is common
enough in the Panhandle, but still days do occur. And on those days,
the owner of a wind wagon would be as becalmed as any clipper ship
with sagging sail.
Not only did Fletcher’s idea never catch on, his out-of-the-box
but in-the-wagon-bed thinking never got the attention accorded his
predecessors in the wind wagon field. The misadventures of Thomas
and Peppard, the original High Plains drifters, fueled folklore
(Walt Disney did a short animated feature called Windwagon Smith
in 1961), fiction and non-fiction, but Fletcher and his windmill
wagon have been forgotten.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July
22, 2004 Column