Fashioning life among windmills

Couple: In retirement, Kees and Jane Verheul took on an unlikely business project, reviving a once-dying business and finding fulfillment.

April 22, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN ANGELO, Texas -- When Kees Verheul decided at age 62 to leave the comfort of retirement and return to the business world, he chose an unlikely venture: a windmill manufacturing plant.

Before he bought Aermotor Windmill Co., Verheul consulted his bride, Jane, who had one question for her husband: "Will it interfere with my fishing?"

He assured her that it wouldn't.

Verheul, who made a fortune manufacturing parts for oil rigs and retired at age 47, paid $1 million in cash for the windmill company in 1998. The couple set aside their fishing gear and hunting rifles and left Verheul's 19,000-acre ranch in Spur for a one-bedroom apartment in Jane's hometown, San Angelo. Two months later, the windmill man had a confession to make.

"I never lied to you," he told Jane, his fourth wife, "and I don't want to lie to you now, but this [company] is going to interfere with your fishing."

And it did.

Kees Verheul set out to save a relic, a quixotic quest, and he's succeeding. But this isn't just a story about the longevity of an old-fashioned technology. It's a tale of a millionaire who is a tinkerer at heart, and of a Texas socialite who's promoting wind power. It's a story about love.

Kees (pronounced "case") Verheul bought Aermotor Co. in spring 1998 after reading an ad in a cattleman's newspaper. One of two remaining windmill makers in the country, the company dates to 1888, when founder LaVerne Noyes sold his first Aermotor.

ka0 In years past, windmills were as plentiful across the American prairie as oil wells across Texas. The wooden structures pumped a family's fresh water and filled watering holes for cattle and ponds for fish.

When the Verheuls arrived, the warehouse was nearly empty. Now it is stocked with six sizes of windmills, each stamped in red with the Aermotor name.

In Verheul's callused hands, the company has expanded its machine shop and built an on-site foundry. Sales are climbing. In today's wired world, who buys a windmill?

Nostalgia accounts for some purchases, as windmills rise above restaurants or grace country homes.

In remote corners of the American West, especially on Indian reservations, windmills are doing the work they did in the 19th century for a fraction of the estimated $50,000 cost of running electricity to a rural farm. A basic, steel-framed windmill -- a wheel with blades set atop a wind-powered pump -- costs about $2,300.

By some accounts, there are as many as 30,000 windmills on farms and ranches across the country. During the millennium hubbub, the Verheuls advertised their Aermotors as "Y2K ready since 1888." Aermotor is on the Internet, and Jane is dreaming up ways to pitch the product. It was her idea to hold essay and photo contests the last two years.

"You got to understand," says Kees, in work cap and jeans. "If I had a choice of playing golf or working in a machine shop, I'd work in a machine shop."

"He just loves cutting iron," his wife says.

On the edges of San Angelo, across the Concho River, a towering steel windmill, its sails creaking in the wind, marks the Aermotor site.

In the low-rise building with the Aermotor sign out front, the Verheuls have his and her offices. His is spacious and utilitarian. The desk is cluttered with papers and machine parts. Two deer racks hang on opposing walls. Amid the sketches of gears and windmill parts is a framed letter and water-color drawing by the late Western artist C. M. Russell.

"In the city, men shake hands and call each other friends," Russell wrote from Great Falls, Mont., "but it's the lonesome places that ties their hearts together and hearts do not forget."

Her office is smaller, but just as plain. It features framed reprints of old Aermotor advertisements, the winner in the windmill photo contest -- shot at sunset -- and a computer. Tacked to the wall is the paper target that this grandmother pumped full of holes to gain her concealed-weapons permit.

From the day Verheul took over the company, his wife has been by his side. "He wants me here," she says. "Whether I'm working or not working, he just wants me close. And that's nice. I've done it the other way. It's a lot nicer this way."

Verheul explains: "Jane, she is an unusual person. She'll do anything to help whether you're cutting up beef or doing PR or running the computer. She's just very loving and attentive. She's extremely smart. She was the belle of San Angelo."

The main street in town is named for Jane's father, Marcellus D. Bryant. He was known simply as M. D., a friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson's who made his millions in the oil business. He chased black gold from Louisiana to Arkansas to Texas.

The way Jane tells it, her father started out as a tool pusher. He skimmed oil off sludge and sold it in buckets in town until he landed a stake in the largest shallow oil field in these parts, the Yates oil field, a pit of prosperity about 150 miles west of San Angelo in Iraan, Texas.

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