NEBRASKA CITY — The Kregel Windmill Factory withstood small fires, the Great Depression and world wars.
Now, the factory built in 1903 will open its doors to the public as the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum.
The museum has been in existence for nearly 20 years, but it's been difficult to get into, museum director Jeremy Kirkendall said. In the past, visitors had to call to set up a tour. When the museum officially opens on April 26, people will be able to experience the factory on their own schedule.
The museum gives visitors a window into the time around 1939, at the height of the factory's production.
Between 1903 and World War II, the factory produced 2,000 windmills.
During the war, production slowed because metal was needed for the war effort. George Kregel, the company's founder, shifted production to servicing wells, repairing windmills, building water tanks and keeping beehives.
In 1991 the factory ended production after Kregel's son, Art Kregel, moved into a nursing home and died later that year. Many of the tools in the factory were left piled up on workbenches and hadn't been moved since.
Seven interactive stations in the museum point out various pieces of machinery.
Windmills were crucial to the settling of Nebraska after the Civil War, Kirkendall said.
The windmill let people extract reliable, clean water from the ground. The spinning fan of the windmill operated a pump that helped farmers irrigate corn and supplied drinking water.
“The ability to create this water-pumping windmill is one of the key essential reasons we were able to settle the plains,” Kirkendall said. “And without it, we wouldn't have been able to live in Nebraska.”
George Kregel's Eli windmill, with its “c-knuckle” design, was common on the Nebraska plains, Kirkendall said.
Its unique style of head locked in place during high winds. Without that design, a windmill was more likely to spin too quickly and tear apart in high winds, Kirkendall said.
Before the former factory could be opened to the public, the nonprofit museum foundation needed to raise the money for significant repairs and an expansion of the building.
Kimmel Charitable Foundation President Ernest Weyeneth toured the facility and decided something needed to be done to restore the crumbling building.
“There was just this feeling that it was a real asset to the community of Nebraska City, to the state and to the nation,” Weyeneth said.
So Weyeneth worked with the museum's board of directors to raise money to fix up the building. In the end the museum raised $1.7 million in grants from the Kimmel Foundation in Lincoln, and the Nelson Family Foundation and the Wirth Foundation in Nebraska City.
The money that was raised went mostly toward renovating the museum and bringing it up to code. It was a three-year process.
Air conditioning and heating were installed, and a public restroom was added to an adjacent house that serves as the museum's offices. The handicap-accessible restroom is a far cry from the small outhouse that still stands behind the building and was used by factory workers.
But the most significant improvement was to the building's roof, said Duane Smith, president of the museum's board.
During work on the roof, workers covered the artifacts with tarps to prevent anything from disturbing the dust that has covered the machinery for years. Smith was at the museum every day as construction progressed.
Four vertical beams were added to support the new roof, which was installed above the original.
The museum still has the original facade from its years as a factory. But that's not the only piece of the museum that was left untouched.
The office remains essentially as it was when the Kregels worked there, Smith said. Receipts from 1916 still sit on top of the desk, and notes jotted on pieces of paper remain in the drawers.
On April 26, the public will get its first chance to see the renovated museum. At 3 p.m., a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held, with appearances by windmill expert T. Lindsay Baker and living Kregel relatives.
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