Tiny Iowa town hopes to get windmill working again
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The old Danish windmill, rebuilt piece by piece decades ago, is the pride of tiny Elk Horn. Now, residents on the western Iowa prairie are struggling to pay for repairs to get the structure’s blades turning again.
Lisa Riggs, who’s been the windmill manager for 38 years, noticed last spring that something was wrong with the 168-year-old windmill, dismantled in Denmark and reassembled stateside in 1975.
“After all these years, I could tell it didn’t sound right,” Riggs said. An inspection determined the region’s hot summers and frigid winters had caused some of the mechanics that attach to the giant sails to shift. The blades were then halted.
The 60-foot-tall windmill is beloved in this town of 650 people, in part because of the tourism dollars it brings in. Elk Horn is about halfway between Des Moines and Omaha, Nebraska, about a seven-mile drive from Interstate 80. Thousands come for the windmill and nearby Museum of Danish America, and hundreds from Denmark also visit each year, drawn by the town’s heritage, which has been featured in two recent television documentaries broadcast overseas.
“It makes them proud that a little town in America is hanging onto the Danish culture,” Riggs said.
Despite its popularity, it’s tough for a little town to raise the $25,000 to $100,000 needed to repair the windmill, Riggs said.
“In a town of 650, it’s very difficult to rely on your businesses to donate,” said Riggs, who has sent out repeated fundraising pleas to about 4,000 people, most who spent money in the gift shop.
But Elk Horn is making progress. After one of the documentaries, more than 250 Danes donated about $10,500, which was used to pay down the mortgage on the structure, allowing money from the gift shop and tours to go toward the repair fund. More donations also could come from Denmark following the airing of shows by two Danish chefs who filmed in Elk Horn.
Mayor Stan Jens said the windmill has given the community a huge lift over the years, noting that unlike many rural towns, Elk Horn has a steady population with healthy businesses and good roads. He worries that could change if the windmill isn’t repaired.
“When you drive into town and it’s not turning, it’s almost like our town isn’t turning,” he said.
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