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Uncle William Deits Built First Windmill in Milbank (2018-05-30)
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Milbank’s Hollands Grist Mill is an iconic landmark, but it was not the first windmill built in the city. That distinction goes to William H. Deits who erected a more traditional windmill in August of 1880 on Milbank’s Main Street. It powered his feed mill, and stood on the east side of Main near the corner of Fourth Avenue (Highway 12). The windmill rose above the Milbank skyline for several years.

Deits can also be credited for being the first-ever garbage collector in the city. He was an energetic man, always looking for a new enterprise.

Deits was not a young man when he arrived in Dakota Territory in 1879. He was born November 16, 1816, in Marbletown in Ulster County, NY, and came west to Minnesota in 1874 before relocating to this area. He was 63 years old, and lived in the Twin Brooks area for a time.

He was often referred to as Uncle Wm. Deits or in later life Grandpa Deits when his name was mentioned in newspaper accounts. The correct spelling of his last name was in question. Sometimes it appeared as Diets and other times as Deits. Deits will be used throughout this story.

Deits erected a windmill to power his feed mill in August of 1880. The Grant County Review noted that “The 20 foot windmill on Deits’ grist mill shows off to good advantage from every direction.” The term grist mill meant that farmers brought in their own grain and received back ground meal or flour.

At the same time, Deits built a 24’x36’ barn and stable that could house eight horses for people who were doing business in Milbank.

Deits intended to grind grain strictly for feed, but during the long winter of 1880-1881 when train blockades were common because of many snowstorms, he ground up wheat into graham for settlers.

In addition to his feed mill, Deits opened a temperance saloon in the old Skahen and Baird building on Main Street in January of 1881. (The Main Street lot that houses present- day JayElle Saloon was the site of the Skahen and Baird building ­– one of the first buildings built in Milbank in 1880.) Temperance Hall, as it was called, was fitted up with billiard and card tables. Deits also sold cigars and confectionery and provided lunches for customers.

As if running two business wasn’t enough, Deits also had a milk business and delivered to customers twice a day.

Deits provided entertainment for community members as well. He erected a big revolving pole swing on his lot by the windmill. A report in the Review noted that Postmaster Bartell’s young daughter narrowly escaped serious injury when she was riding the swing one day. “She leaned her head over to speak to someone below her and her head was caught between the swinging chair and the pole which brought the swing to a sudden stop. She was just slightly bruised,” reported the Review.

Deits ceased operation of the Temperance Hall and entered into the hotel business in August of 1881. He erected a 25’x26’ two-story building at the corner of Third Street and Fourth Avenue. It was located on the lot behind the windmill. The hotel was originally called the Farmer’s House, but it soon became known as the City Hotel.

Deits provided fresh fish for meals at the hotel and town residents. The Review noted in the April 27, 1882, that Deits had brought to town the first wagon load of fresh fish that season. Caught in Big Stone Lake, the haul included pike, pickerel, sunfish, red rock and other varieties.

Deits also owned a stallion for stud services – Gray Prince. It was described as a “fine half Norman stallion.” Among the farmers in the area who had received colts from the stallion were H. Baxter, J.S. Cole, F.L. Cameron, R. Farnham, E.L. Farnham and  H. Droticour.

Deits improved the City Hotel in March of 1883, building an addition. He also sided the original portion of the structure. The hotel could accommodate 30 guests.

More improvements came in April of that year when Deits built a large piazza around the hotel at ground level and at the second story. He probably used recycled lumber because an earlier item in the Review noted that he had torn down the old frame schoolhouse and removed the lumber.

Deits continued his feed mill business, and in November of 1883 raised the wheel on the windmill 10 feet higher and made other improvements.

Deits doubled his capacity for stabling horses in June of 1884 by erecting a 24x80 feet addition onto his barn.

The landscape of his lots was also important to Deits as he planted many plants and trees. The Review complimented him on his efforts and in the July 10, 1884, issue boasted he had the finest gardens and orchards in town.

Deits’ garden was mentioned in the Review again in June of 1885. “Wm. Deits’ apple and plum trees are loaded down with fruit that promises to mature in fine shape this season from trees that were set out in the spring of ‘81. His blackberry and raspberry bushes, also currants and gooseberries, are looking remarkably fine and thrifty,” reported the Review.

Deits was also one of the first residents to try planting evergreen trees in the city. Many doubted that the trees could be grown in this area, but Deits was proving them wrong as he had found success with them.

Deits was inventive, and in September of 1884 he placed large head lights on both his hotel and feed mill so that both lights could be seen from the railroad and provide light for his guests and patrons at night. He also rigged up a water system which supplied water from the same pump to both his stable and a trough on the street.

The hotel was expanded again in the spring of 1885 with provided additional sleeping rooms and a larger and more convenient office.

Deits decided it was time to retire from active business late in 1885. He offered his windmill for sale, but the buyer would have to remove it from the property. The feed mill was in top-running order except for the fact that the windmill could not be powered unless the wind was from the south. The buildings around the structure blocked the wind. The windmill did not sell until April of 1886 when Alex Root of Alban Township purchased it.

Deits also made an agreement in November of 1885 to rent out the City Hotel to Hank Finley. However, the deal fell through and Deits continued to run the hotel until May of 1889 when his son, Albert, took over operations. Albert and his wife had assisted his father for several years.

The arrangement lasted less than a year as Deits’ daughter-in-law became ill and could not handle the workload of a hotel. Deits resumed responsibility in September of 1890.

That same month tragedy struck in the family with the death of Deits’ nine-month-old granddaughter who was the child of Deits’ daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John Kerber. Mr. Kerber was in the Black Hills at the time, and could not reach home in time for the funeral. The daughter was staying at her parental home at the time.

Deits continued to stay active, and in November of 1890 he was in charge of building a barn for John Bosworth of Grant Center Township.

Deits tried his hand at selling in June of 1893 as he became an agent for a lawn sprayer and sprinkling system. The device consisted of a large barrel supported on a truck with pump and hose attached. The apparatus could readily be moved from place to place, and was touted to be ideal for watering spring lawns and gardens and washing windows.

Deits’ wife died under tragic circumstances in December of 1895, and Deits himself almost died. It was a second marriage for both, and they had been married at Ortonville, MN, on July 3, 1881.

Just before Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Deits made a trip to visit Mrs. Deits’ son, Oscar Dixon, at Gary which was 40 miles southeast of Milbank.

The couple left in the morning and as night came on they were within six miles of Gary. They stopped at a farm house to inquire the way. The area was hilly and sparsely settled, and the farmer urged them to stop over for the night, but Deits felt he could find the way.

He had not gone far when he realized he had missed the road and was lost. Becoming chilled, the couple got out of the buggy to walk and get their circulation going. Deits instructed his wife to follow immediately behind the buggy while he led the horses.

After a time, Deits called back to his wife to see how she was doing, but he received no response. When he stepped back to see why she did not answer, the horses ran off.

There was no sign of his wife, and she did not respond to his calls. He laid down on the road to listen for any sounds, but soon became drowsy and slipped into unconsciousness.

The husband and wife were found at about nine the next morning. Deits was on the road and his wife about a mile away. Both were unconscious, but alive. They were taken to a farm house for recovery.

Deits’ feet were quite badly frozen, but Mrs. Deits made no complaint and stated she remembered going pleasantly to sleep and never suffered. She seemed to recover and said she was hungry and according to the article in the Review ate quite heartily. However, she started to fail later in the afternoon and died the following day. The funeral and burial were conducted at Gary.

Deits returned to Milbank and after the event turned the operation of the City Hotel over to his son, Albert, again. Albert’s wife’s health had improved, and she was capable of running the establishment again.

Gangrene set in on four of Deits’ toes and in February of 1896, the ends of the toes were amputated. He made it through the operation without incident. He was 80 at the time.

Deits was out of the hotel business, but he kept busy. He erected a building in April of 1899 on the south side of Milbank for a hennery with plans to engage in raising chickens on a large scale.

It was also in April of 1899 that he began his garbage business. He fitted up a tank on wheels and employed James Ellis to gather up garbage around the city. The plan was to have families provide barrels in which to deposit garbage, and Ellis would make two trips a week to empty the barrels. The charge was fifty cents a month. The Review encouraged the new business, stating in an article, “This is a very commendable enterprise, and one which every family should encourage. The prompt removal of garbage will not only enable premises to be kept in much neater condition, but also reduce the chances of sickness from decaying and offensive vegetable matter.”

As the new century began Deits settled into retirement. An item in the November 21, 1901, issue of the Review stated he had celebrated his 85th birthday the day before. “Uncle Deits is a great fisherman, and during the fishing season may be seen day after day trudging along to the dam with rod and line,” reported the Review.

Eventually Deits made his home at the county farm south of Milbank, and spent his time in assisting around the place by keeping the trees trimmed up and the grove raked up and in order. He ventured into town in November of 1904 to visit friends. It was noted that for several years on his birthday friends presented him with small sums of money, a suit of clothes, a pair of gloves and other necessary items. It was revealed that he was unfortunate enough to lose all his property, but “he is today as happy and contented as though he were a millionaire ­and perhaps happier.”

He was back in Milbank in November of 1905 to mark his 89th birthday. There was only one person in the county older than him, and that was the father of S. T. B. Potter of Revillo who was 94 years old. “He is still hale and hearty and as each anniversary rolls around he calls upon his numerous friends who remember him with a small contribution which helps carry him through the next year with a little spending money,” reported the Review.

Longevity was a family trait as evidenced by an item printed in the October 30, 1884, issue of the Review, “Wm. Deits, proprietor of the City Hotel, who is 68 years old, has just returned from Wisconsin where he has been on a visit to his mother who is in her 92nd year, and whom he had not seen for 16 years. She is entirely blind but in right smart health.”

Deits did not live as long as his mother had, but he did reach the age of 90. However, he had been in failing health for several months and died June 28, 1906. His funeral was conducted at the M.E. Church in Milbank. – Debbie Hemmer

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