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De Baca County News photo: Scot Stinnett Derrill Mitchell has parts ready for a new windmill to be erected near Las Vegas, N.M. The project was delayed by 12 inches of snow in the area.

FORT SUMNER — It’s hard to imagine the American frontier without a windmill poking out of the horizon, its silver vanes slicing the crosswinds.

Though electricity-generating giants have sometimes sprouted in their place, the traditional windmills that once pumped groundwater for thirsty livestock have largely become decorative fixtures.

Along with the windmills have gone the windmill men.

Derrill Mitchell, owner of Mitchell’s Windmill & Supply Inc. in Fort Sumner, says he is among the last of his kind.

“It’s a dying art,” Mitchell says as he takes a moment from machining new parts to wipe his brow. The metallic shavings of discarded gears catch the afternoon sun as they cascade to the floor of his workshop.

Mitchell says he is the only windmill man in New Mexico who still machines parts, one of a dwindling number across the country.

Windmills haven’t changed much over the years, he says: “A part from a 1935 Aermotor still fits a 1962, or a 1989 or a 2008.”

Mitchell and his crew have been called on to install or repair windmills across the Southwest, through America’s breadbasket and beyond.

Rancher Ted Olney leans against a post in the chill of an eastern New Mexico morning as he shares one-liners with Mitchell and his crew.

When a well dried up on his ranch just outside Fort Sumner and his cattle were left without water, he called on Mitchell to plant a new windmill.

There wasn’t anything complicated about Olney’s decision.

“We gotta have water for the livestock,” he said.

Olney has about 10 windmills pumping water out of the ground on his property. He has come to rely on wind power to keep his ranch running.

Good work on a project usually means good word of mouth within the tight-knit circle of ranchers and farmers.

“We’re all word of mouth here, which most people trust more than a fancy ad,” Mitchell says.

As Mitchell was installing Olney’s windmill, the rancher’s phone rang: a farmer friend wondering if Olney could recommend a windmill man.

That’s largely how it has been during Mitchell’s 30 years working his trade out of the little brick workshop along Fourth Street in Fort Sumner. Since taking over the company in 1977, Mitchell has erected windmills from California to Virginia and shipped parts as far as Hawaii and China — and it all happened on a fluke.

A union strike at a Kerr-McGee uranium mine in Grants suddenly left Mitchell as an unemployed machinist and forced him to return to the Melrose area, where he and his wife had been raised.

His father-in-law told him of a windmill shop in Fort Sumner that was in need of a machinist. After four years of working for Shell Denison at Denison Machine Company, Mitchell got an opportunity to take over the business.

“He wanted to retire and I wanted to go into debt, so it all worked out,” Mitchell recalls with a laugh.