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This 1909 postcard shows the Beatrice Dempster Mill Co.’s manufacturing plant before modernization in 1950 when it was enlarged and remodeled. (Courtesy photo)

The first manufacturer in Beatrice was said to have begun production in 1857 when the townsite company established a sawmill on the east side of the Blue River on the southwest corner of First and Court Streets to make lumber. Today, Beatrice is often credited with being the largest manufacturing city in the state outside of Lincoln and Omaha.

Charles B. Dempster was born in Carpentersville, Kane County, Ill., and began his business career as a salesman for a number of firms offering everything from paper shirt patterns to sewing machines. After living in Chicago in 1872, Dempster moved to Beatrice in 1878.

Within two days of his arrival, he bought a one-third interest in a windmill and pump shop for $337, of which $300 was borrowed. The name of the business on the southeast corner of Fourth and Court streets was changed to the Dempster Co., which reported sales of $4,000 during its first year in operation. Only three years later, in 1881, the firm reported sales had increased to $15,000 with an inventory that averaged between $3,000 and $4,000 and advertised being an agent for the Iron Turbine Wind Mill Co.

Joined by his brother A.R. Dempster in 1884, the company began manufacturing its own windmills and selling gasoline engines. Two years later the firm incorporated as the Dempster Windmill Manufacturing Co. Its original pattern "solid wheel" windmill stayed in production through 1909 even though literally dozens of other designs were produced through the years. The year 1886 also saw the construction of a new three-story brick factory building on West Court Street, west of the bridge, to take advantage of the Blue River for power production. Despite the source of power provided by the river, its frequent flooding finally did so much damage to the factory that the company bought a site on South Sixth Street in 1889 to be away from the water and, at the same time, be nearer to the railroads for shipping and receiving freight. In the new location, its product base expanded from windmills to include pumps, well components and farm implements. In 1902, it also developed a "hydraulic-rotary drilling" machine for wells.

In 1918, Dempster reported "capital and surplus of more than one and one-fourth million dollars." At that high point in the firm's history, it had more than 500 employees in Beatrice alone and had another facility in Memphis. The total annual payroll exceeded $500,000. The decade was also the high point for windmill production with more than 200 manufacturers in the United States alone. The Dempster #12, an early model, was still in production with only slight modifications, proving its early designs were not only viable but well-designed.

During the second decade of the 20th century, internal combustion gasoline engines and electric motors began to replace windmills as the most popular means of pumping water, but Dempster shifted its emphasis toward farm implements as well as heating and plumbing equipment. With World War II,  Dempster shifted production to war material, including 90 millimeter artillery shells.

In 1950, the factory was given a face-lift on the exterior, enlarged and remodeled. Ten years later, Dempster was purchased by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway but within a couple of years was again sold and the name changed to Dempster Industries.

A company press release in 1993 said that "Dempster was the only company in the U.S. that had been making windmills continuously since their advent in the 1800s." In 2008 the company again changed ownership when it was purchased by Wallace and Felicia Davis of Centerville, Ohio, for about $2 million. They announced they would continue to produce windmills and water pumps but would expand into fertilizer spreaders and solar water heaters. They further noted that they were developing wind turbines in conjunction with a California firm and hoped to be in production within a year.

Windmills of a sort are indeed now being built through Windation Energy Systems in addition to primarily submersible water pumps and agricultural products. The Beatrice office at 711 S. Sixth St. now has only about 30 employees, but it has been noted that the plant building and water tower are considered eligible for consideration for the National Register of Historic Places.

At least two Nebraska firms still advertise repairing Dempster windmills, but if you want to visit the "last preserved intact windmill factory in the United States," you will have to go to Nebraska City. There, the 1879 Kregel Windmill Factory, now in its "new" 1903 building at 1416 Central Avenue as a museum, looks like the employees have just left for lunch and could return and resume production at any time.

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Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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