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Stepping back in time in Nebraska City

Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 11:59 AM CDT
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NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. (KOLN) - The Kregel Windmill Factory Museum houses more than one million artifacts, and is the spot where the famous “Eli” windmills were built for more than one hundred years. The museum is located in Nebraska City’s downtown area. “It was started by two cousins that are essentially a self-made American story,” museum executive director Isaiah Yott said.

The Kregel family came to Nebraska from Hanover, Germany in 1875. In 1879, cousins George and Louis Kregel decided to go into a business of their own. “Not in this building, but in the building across the street where city hall stands today, is actually where the Kregel Windmill Company started,” Yott said. In 1902, the windmill factory business moved to its final site, where the museum is now. “Believe it or not this place is about 60 percent larger than what I like to call Kregel 1, or the building where city hall stands today,” Yott said. “So from 1879 to 1991, this business ran. It made Eli Windmills that, quite frankly, were known throughout the U.S. in a big way.

One of the things that made the windmill unique, the Eli windmill unique, was that the Kregel cousins were able to build an automatic brake. This allowed the windmill to avoid damage in a windstorm. The C-knuckle joint was George Kregel’s design. “And it would actually close the windmill and stop it from spinning in a windy situation. This was important to a windmill because if you didn’t close it up, everything would break. So in high winds, you’d have a broken windmill, and if you had a broken windmill, you didn’t have water,” Yott said.

While the Kregel’s solved a lot of problems for farmers in the early days of Nebraska, they also left a big legacy for all of us to enjoy. “One of the things our patrons will say when they come in and they want to take a tour of the windmill factory here is, oh my gosh, it smells and looks like an old barn, but it’s also a metal and wood shop as well!” Yott said.

Art Kregel was the last of the family to operate the business. He ran it for 50 years until 1991, when he passed away. “When we got in here in 1993, no one had been in here since 1991, so for two years, this place sat, gathered dust and cobwebs, and nobody came in and out,” Yott said. “And in 1993, a small group of us came in. And what we discovered was all of the machinery still ran, the line shaft above me here still worked. This one of 13 in the U.S., this line shaft this power source. When the metal rod and the wooden pulley turn via an electric generator, or in the early days a gas-powered engine, it would have turned the belts. And then the belts would have worked the machines, and then the workers could have produced the parts to make the windmills.”

So when you walk into the museum, it feels like employees might still be coming back to work. Even the office appears as though the owners intend to return. It’s a museum, that transports visitors. “It’s truly a unique piece of Americana that sits in Nebraska that’s Nebraska-based, but it has so many more lessons to teach about the American spirit, and about where America came from and where it’s going,” Yott said.

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