The smell of oil permeated the large building, while metal or iron (I’m never sure of the difference between the two) parts: huge pipes, screws, pullies, wheels, etc. all standing taller than I surrounded the chair that Cliff Conway had prepared for me when I arrived on that cold, clear morning, hoping to ask him about how it was that he has become the premier windmill expert for Central Texas.
Because I’ve known Cliff for more years than either of us wants to count and because I know that he can wax long and interestingly on the history and the evolution of the windmill as well as those who have worked in the industry, I took the time to settle as deeply into my chair as possible and then look around…at the cats who were obviously at home there…at the ham radio sounding off on the far wall…and at the pot of hot water heating on top of the barrel stove, obviously made by the owner.
It was apparent that here was a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, and how many people can say that at the end of the day? What I honestly didn’t know was exactly how it all began all those years ago, and finally, I was ready for Cliff to take me back to the beginning, but I soon learned that the beginning didn’t begin with windmills…not at all.
“Archie Boyd was our Ag teacher, and our freshman year all we did was make some bookends. We had welders etc. in the shop, but we never got to use them because he didn’t know how. When I was a sophomore, I started wanting to learn to weld.
“Right before we got out for Christmas that year, we received a flyer at the house from Montgomery Ward for a welder. Joe Evans had one just like it. I had my own money, and I told my dad that I wanted it. He tried to talk me out of it, but he finally said it was my money to blow any way I wanted to,” Cliff grinned at me as he remembered those long ago days.
Reminding me that when we were in high school the campus was open, meaning that we were able to leave school during lunch time, Cliff made a beeline for Montgomery Ward, where he told owner, Wallace Gibson, that he wanted to order the welder. That was on a Tuesday, and Gibson told him that he could expect the welder on Thursday.
“So on Thursday I told Mom that I was going to get my welder. It took three men to load it, and it cost $105.00 for the whole thing, taxes, shipping, and all. I went home and parked in the shed, and Dad and I went to hay cows. When we got back to shed, Dad saw it in my pick up and started to say that he told me I couldn’t buy it, but I reminded him that he had told me that it was my money to blow…” he grinned at me once again. “And Dad began to grin…” he said.
“We managed to get it off, and I got the book and started learning about it.
“The next day when I got home from school, RP Scott had been there and wired in a plug for it, and my dad had been playing with it. From that point, I had two weeks out of school for Christmas, and my grandmother was the first to bring me a bunch of things from her house that needed fixing. I welded them, and she paid me $75.00 and with that, I had almost paid for my welder. I kept on working, and the neighbors started bringing me their things, and I would weld them.
“Believe it or not, the gates that you can still see on Highway 36 toward Gustine that have the cultivator wheels on them today are the ones that I built way back then. Anyway, by the time I went back to school two weeks later, I had paid for my welder three or four times over.
“I used that same welder for fifteen years and sold it for $90.00. I had to rub it in to my dad that it had cost me about a dollar a year to own it,” my old friend laughed.
“That was the start of my welding career. I went on to go to Tarleton for two years and took my basics then went to A&M for shop classes and a few of those nasty classes like accounting and analytic geometry. I came home spring break and poured this slab where we sit today.
“My brother was in vet school, and my dad helped us buy the property and I started getting it ready so I could build a shop on it. I worked on it summers and weekends. I graduated on in May and two days later, I was putting trusses up and finally opened in July.
“On the day I graduated, Jim and Betty Roberts were there because their daughter, Cindy, was graduating. Jim found me and asked if I would build him a set of corrals. I finished that project after seven weekends, and then his brother Harold wanted me to build him a set. After six Saturdays, I finished those, and then the peanut farmers needed me and my portable welder, and I stayed busy.
“It was harder than it seemed because I might do the farmers’ work in February, and they’d tell me to write it down and they’d pay me next fall. That usually meant between Thanksgiving and Christmas or New Year…if they made a crop. Remember 1980? It took several years to get over it. In fact, in 1983, I received four bankruptcy notices instead of checks.”
And finally, the windmill portion of the story began, and thank goodness it did because had it not, Cliff Conway and his family might have starved to death….not from lack of work, from lack of payment.
“In early 1983, Dee Wilson came by to see me because he couldn’t get anyone to work on windmill parts, and I started doing it for him. He’d come by late in the evening and pick what I’d worked on and pay me cash at the time he picked it up.
“Toward the end of the year, I was really getting into it. I was doing some of the more intricate work, and Dee was paying me well. That was when the bankruptcy letters came, and Dee was my salvation. He asked me if I could rig up something on my dad’s backhoe that would raise or take down a whole windmill, and I fixed a boom that would do it.
It worked pretty well, and Dee had about twenty that he needed moved that year and Dad and I helped him.
“Then I bought an old broken windmill and when Dad and I got the head unhooked, it started to fall so I grabbed the leg, and next thing I knew I was twenty feet in the air, and my dad was scared to death, but I saved the head. Dad was through, and I got busy and started building the trailer that I still use to move them today.
“From that time on, I was the only one helping Dee until he passed away eight years later. Dee had a lot of patience. Never saw him mad. If something didn’t go just right, he’d sit down and wait a minute then go again. I learned a lot about life from him.”
And then Cliff Conway reminded me of something I had forgotten. Dee Wilson, in his standard uniform of blue overalls, was an institution all to himself, an institution that not many of the modern world would believe.
“Dee never had a phone. He called Jeanes Hardware his office because the girls there would take his calls. He would return those calls from there. If one was long distance, he’d give them a dollar or so to cover the bill.
“He owned a place out toward Gustine and he had all kinds of windmill parts out there. We’d go out and pick out the parts and I’d bring them in and repair them and he’d pay me. Every time we’d go out there, he’d tell me that when he died, he wanted me to have those parts. He didn’t put that in writing, and I bought them when he was gone.
That was in 1990, and Cliff Conway is still using from that stack of parts today!
“It took all the cash I had to buy them back then.”
Today, he uses some on windmill repair and sells some as antiques…for antique prices….so it was a REALLY good deal after all.
“So are you here to stay?” I asked him.
“As long as someone needs someone to work on a windmill, I am. I’m probably the only windmill man for ten counties, and I’m trying to stay within about a 75 mile radius…if I can.”
It’s his love; it’s his passion, and unless it’s church time, Cliff Conway will probably come when you call him. Of course, if it’s church time, you’re just gonna have to wait because he’s busy, and he does have his priorities firmly in order, and he has since he was a sophomore in high school.