07/25/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

The Great Texas Wind Rush: EXCERPT


The below is adapted from "The Great Texas Wind Rush", by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price (University of Texas Press, July 2013)

Father Joe James, a Lubbock priest, would plant one of the first Texas wind farms in the 1970s beside his church. He grew up in the Panhandle town of Dalhart, too young to remember the worst of the Dust Bowl but old enough by the time of Pearl Harbor to remember young men marching off to war. The family's modest ranch house outside town lacked electricity, but his father, a tinkerer and autodidact named Andy Marmaduke James, knew something about the wind that whistled at the eaves and sometimes forced a man to shield his face as he walked. Decades earlier, the promise of cheap land had brought him down from Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma. Starting at the turn of the century, chunk by chunk, Andy Marmaduke built, with his brother, one of the formidable ranches of the Panhandle. The James Ranch at one time took up most of Dallam County, in the northwest corner of Texas, and even reached into much of the Oklahoma Panhandle as well as Colorado. At the height of the ranch's operations, in 1918, it had 132 windmills, and four crews of windmillers working around the clock to keep them up. But that year, James lost nearly everything. A man had purchased the whole herd but had yet to pick them up. The brothers bought new cattle of their own to replace the herd they had just sold. Winter struck, a severe one, and almost all the cattle -- about 75,000 head -- froze to death.

The brothers worked the ranch back up, but they never again had the clout and riches once so firmly in hand. And so, when Joe was still a boy, his father focused on modest leaps, like bringing electricity to the small ranch house. He had only a sixth-grade education, but each night Andy Marmaduke cracked open whatever volume of Compton's Encyclopedia he had been reading the previous evening and proceeded to take in the next alphabetical entry. By day, he was the sort of man who took things apart and put them together again the way some people shuffle cards, out of a kind of habit. With the aid of his son, he affixed a wooden blade, probably purchased at a hardware store, to the top of a garage next to the house, about twenty feet in the air. He wired the contraption to a six-volt battery, and then to an automobile taillight that he hung in the ranch house's kitchen, or to a radio on which the family could hear the latest cattle and wheat prices via a station broadcasting out of San Antonio. Eventually, like so many other parts of rural Texas, the property was connected to the grid. But the erection of the wind turbine, and the self-sufficiency underlying it, was a lesson Joe James would remember several decades later, when in the teeth of the national energy crisis he planted brand-new turbines, larger and more powerful than the one he and his father had put together, next to the football field of the West Texas church where he had become a priest.

James had first heard the call of the Lord as a fifth grader. During most summer months he helped his father at their ranch. But that particular summer in the early 1940s he had broken his ankle -- he can't remember how -- and his parents sent him to Bible camp. At recess, during a game of baseball, he was out in right field, on crutches, when a pastor came to bat. James heard a voice: "'The Lord tells me He loves me and He loves you,'" James remembers. "That call has never left me."

By the 1970s, James had ascended the ranks of the Catholic Church, and in 1977 he was named to lead a congregation in Lubbock that needed a new church. He was forty-five years old, but he still remembered the lessons of his boyhood. "We're supposed to be custodians of God's creation," he said, years later, "but churches are among the greatest energy sieves of any buildings."

Working with a church architect, Deacon Leroy Behnke, James settled upon something near the opposite of typical soaring, high-windowed churches. His building, Saint John Neumann, would be dug out of the earth, like the homes of the first white settlers. "It would be cool in the summertime and warm in the winter," he thought. "Christianity has been here for nineteen centuries without air conditioning and heating." And remembering how his father had brought light to the old ranch house, he decided that much of the power would come from the winds whipping through Lubbock.

Putting a wind charger atop a garage was a lot easier than finding five turbines to power a church and school. James met Coy Harris, who ran an engineering company in town that had been experimenting with wind turbines. Harris said he could build the turbines for $84,000, and James set about collecting the money: the federal government, as James remembered several decades later, agreed to pay half via grants channeled through the state, and the parish would pay the other half. But Harris, who now runs a wind-power museum in Lubbock, decided he could not produce reliable turbines: "You don't sell things you're developing, especially wind turbines, because they tend to fall apart," he says. Suddenly James looked like he would have to return the government's investment. James himself, relying on money he got from renting the family ranch, says he lost a $20,000 investment he made in Harris's company. "It got pretty rough when he couldn't produce the generators," James says.

But he learned of a father-son team in Burkburnett that was already building turbines. He gave them a call, and one day in early 1982, the delivery arrived.

The wind was so sharp around Lubbock -- sharp enough that kids sometimes tied sheets to their wrists, as sails, when they rode bicycles -- that the workers had to sand the two-blade machine to reduce efficiency, for fear the turbines would spin too fast and the whole thing would wobble like an out-of-kilter ceiling fan.

James had spent weeks checking the wind currents. He made a kite by nailing together a small wooden cross, gluing paper across it, and on the long tail of twine tying streamers every five feet. Then, like a priestly Ben Franklin, he flew the kite over the property, figuring out the best site for the turbines. They needed to have plenty of space around them so the top of the blade wouldn't hit anything if they fell, and they had to be far enough apart so they wouldn't interfere with each other's wind. "If you've got a ten-foot object, it will cause turbulence forty feet downwind," says James, in 2011 a still-vigorous seventy-nine-year-old with bushy eyebrows and a penchant for navy blue denim coveralls that make him look like an auto mechanic. The only tip-off that he was a monsignor was the heavy talisman of Saint Benedict on a gold chain around his neck.

Finally, he settled on putting the turbines beside the church school's football field.

The turbines were taller than anything else around, and James planted three of them, each sixty feet tall, along a sideline and a fourth behind an end zone. They were wired directly into the church and the school, and in the evenings, when the lights were out and the air-conditioning was turned off, excess power could be fed to the city's electric grid. The last turbine went in next to the church; it was called Big Bird, because it stood eighty feet tall. The turbines generated enough electricity to cover a quarter of the needs of the school and the 850-strong congregation. "Everybody going down the loop could see our wind generators for a mile away," James remembers.

James's tenure was marked by one major success -- or controversy, depending how you look at it. In the summer of 1988 several of his parishioners, including a retired air force man and a housewife, said they were getting messages from the Virgin Mary. Word spread, as it is wont to do, and roughly 22,000 people by James's estimate (13,000 according to local officials) showed up on an August day for an outdoor mass to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. Some churchgoers claimed to see the sun "dancing." Several claimed to be healed. One boy was suffering from muscular dystrophy, which "'caused him to have his hand against his chest,'" James told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "'When the Blessed Mother came to the fountain at St. John Neumann, he extended out his hand.'" The Lubbock bishop shunned the event and later appointed a "team of experts to investigate whether any miracles had occurred," according to the paper. The panel found no evidence of miracles, and in 1990 James was quietly relieved of his post.

The wind turbines stayed up, for at least a short while, but were eventually dismantled; two decades later, all that remains of the turbines are five eight-foot-deep cement anchors, sunk like gravestones around the church grounds. "The priest who followed me couldn't give a flip about them," James says. "He said he couldn't get anyone to repair them or cobble them together. If you want to do something badly enough, you will. If you don't want to, the way is filled with excuses."