A Lesser Horizon

Both added rustic beauty to the land but you see them less and less. Both spoke to man’s resourcefulness, and yet they were too simple to survive. And thus the land loses two countryside icons: fire lookout towers and windmills. Oh you see plenty of blinking cell towers but you see fewer and fewer fire towers and windmills, picturesque, but sentenced to live in the past.
How many times has a drive through the country been more memorable thanks to a windmill or a fire tower, and how sad when you come that way again and see one or both gone. The horizon loses its fading stars and is all the less for it.
I recall the remnants of but one windmill in Lincoln County; only its tower remains. As for the county’s fire tower, it stands just off the corner of Highways 79 and 378 and is visible from town, a rare thing. Another fire tower stands where the Thomson Highway runs into Highway 78, and another stands off Highway 78 near Aonia. Fewer than ever stand though and I hate to see them make that one-way trip to a place we call the past, but going they are until they are gone, gone, gone.
Growing up, we called them fire towers. I still do. The loner atop the tower was known as the “fire lookout” or “towerman,” though towerwoman is appropriate, as you’ll see. The towerman sat in a “cab” looking for telltale signs of fire. Inside the 8-by-8 foot cab typically was a swiveling chair, a two-way radio, telephone, binoculars, and maybe a small refrigerator. Of course the crucial equipment was the alidade, a surveying instrument, and a topographic map. Together, they helped the towerman pinpoint a fire’s location.
The peak of the fire tower’s reign was 1953 when 5,060 towers looked out on the land. Fire towers rose to grace the horizon as Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps put young men and World War One veterans to work during the Depression. The CCC built a lot of good things for the country, among them the great and beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway and fire towers where life was lonely at the top.
Shirley Williams knows how lonely it gets. She sat atop a Georgia Forestry Commission fire lookout tower for well over 40 years. Back in July 2004, the Savannah Morning News ran a story on Shirley. At that time, she was one of but seven operators working in state-operated towers. She manned, you might say, the Ludowici fire tower. She started out in a different tower on Highway 301, gone now, dismantled, and sold for scrap, the destiny of many a tower.
Shirley said you could see for 25 miles on a clear day. Beautiful sunsets were the rule, not the exception. “And you haven’t lived until you’ve been in a fire tower during a lightning storm,” she said. Otherwise, “up there,” she added, “it’s quiet and peaceful; not a lot going on.”
Georgia once had 360 such quiet, peaceful sentinels watching over its forests. That averaged out to well over two towers per county. Gone, dismantled, no longer standing are 188. Those active total 15. The number standing unused comes to 157. What will become of the 157? They’ll disappear because few people are willing to sit above the landscape for hours. In this economy, you’d think someone would love to work where it’s quiet and peaceful. Perhaps they’d look down on the world with new appreciation.
They won’t get the chance I’m afraid. Fire towers are falling out of favor also thanks to technology. Satellites have replaced them somewhat, but satellites aren’t as effective as you’d think. By the time a satellite spots a fire it’s well underway, and that’s not good.
Ever been tempted to climb a fire tower?
I did just once. Up all the flights and steps I went until I reached the trap door. Pushing through, I entered another world. Everything below seemed foreign. Not one for heights, I didn’t stay long. I wish now I had. Gazing down across the land is something you can do only in the mountains. And to do it from a fire tower in the flatlands is an opportunity soon to be lost in time.
As for windmills, every time I see one my mind conjures up the Australian outback, famous for its parched landscape. They spin and pump water for livestock and the farmhouse there and here too, though here it is more a rarity than ever.
These relics with their face constantly in the wind bring a lovely touch to the land. Acting also as a weathervane, they show us which way the wind blows. They invite the wind to lift water from the ground. The wind-powered blades operate a “sucker rod” that turns rotary motion into the reciprocating movement that powers an underground cylinder pump. It ingeniously pushes a water column to the surface, where it spills over into a storage tank. The depth of the water table, by the way, determines how big the windmill needs to be.
To create an independent power source, the breeze pushes the blades, which turn a driveshaft that powers a gearbox that steps up the generator’s speed high enough to produce electricity. Shockingly primitive technology.
Quiet except perhaps for a squeak now and then, windmills blend with nature to give man the most reliable, most efficient pumping machine ever invented. Windmills are so efficient and durable their basic design hasn’t changed in 120 years.
Here in the South and the states in general, the old windmills we see were built by Aermotor Windmill, a company down in San Angelo, Texas, that’s still in business. My hope for Aermotor is simple. Long may it endure.
Today I see few windmills, other than the miniature models you occasionally see in yards. And then there’s that monster down toward Augusta at Windmill Plantation.
In this era of coveting green energy sources, you’d expect to see more windmills on the horizon. Windmills are making a comeback in the huge and controversial windmill farms, but I’d love to see more old-fashioned, quaint windmills providing water and power in our homes. Maybe I’ll get my wish.
Technology is giving us what are called personal windmills. Maybe that trend will catch on and it’ll become fashionable and wise to put a small wind turbine on a nearby hill or in the back yard where the winds comes through. Wouldn’t it be nice to cease with all the hot air about the environment and global warming and simply put the wind to good use?
Still, despite the possibilities, we’ve come to this: a lesser horizon. I doubt few school children will draw a cell tower like we used to draw windmills, blazes aspinning and water apumping. No, I doubt kids draw cell towers at all, but what do I know. I was born in the last year of the first half of the last century. That’s right. You do the math.
Down along the coast, lighthouses have long garnered the glory for adding a picturesque touch to the land. Inland we had our fire towers and windmills. Now we get the garish, blinking cell towers that call attention to themselves, but memorable they’re not.
Think about this for a moment. Do you remember with sharp recall the cell towers you see driving here and there? Neither do I. Way too many, way too ugly. They look like overgrown 1950’s TV antennae on steroids or remnants of some future industrial zone spared to remind us how we put a blight on the land. But an old windmill or a fire tower standing vigilant over a green forest? You remember sights like that.

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