Demolition of ‘windmill’ changes Pelican Rapids river landscape forever

By Louis Hoglund

Debris falls from the “windmill” building, the Pelican River structure that framed the city’s damsite. It was a nostalgic loss for many Pelican Rapids past and former residents.

The last visual component of the Pelican Rapids damsite crumbled to the riverside Jan. 24.

The so-called windmill building, the cement “tower” that overlooked the dam and the “World’s Largest Pelican,” was demolished as part of the Pelican River restoration project. The building was believed to be about a century old. 

Earlier in January, the Pelican Pete statue was lifted from its perch and moved to safe-keeping. Pete’s deteriorating exterior will be renovated and re-painted. The famous statue will be returned late spring or early summer, to a new nest—approximately where the “windmill building” was situated. 

By Wednesday morning, Jan. 25, a wrecking ball was swinging back and forth, breaking up the lower portions of the structure. 

Demolition day for the building was rescheduled a couple of times. 

With lead-based paint and asbestos in parts of the structure, arrangements had to be made to haul the debris to a special site—rather than a conventional landfill, according to city administrator Lance Roisum. 

The destruction of the familiar building, which had been a framing feature for hundreds of thousands of photographs of the giant pelican and dam, was lamented by many. 

Social media posts on the Pelican Rapids Press Facebook page included numerous sorrowful comments. 

“My heart breaks…”

“Why would we tear down something that is historical?”

“While I support the river restoration project, the windmill destruction was really painful. So sad.”

“Sad day as part of history in Pelican Rapids is gone forever…”

Despite the nostalgic appeal, the structure was a basic block design, not architecturally significant. It had not really served a practical purpose for decades. 

The “windmill” structure was built in 1924 along with the new concrete Frazee mill building. The previous wooden Frazee Mill was destroyed by fire in 1923. 

Water power from the dam had for years supplied the energy to run the mill, according to former Mayor Wayne Runningen. A more modern hydro turbine was installed in about 1924 in the new concrete block structure, using the original flume channel that was a part of the dam. 

The James Leffel & Co. (since 1862) from Springfield, Ohio has specialized in the design and manufacture of hydraulic turbines in a wide range of capacities and types. This is the company that did the installation of the hydro turbine, noted Runningen. 

The late Loren Levorson stated that the turbine was scrapped out to provide metal during World War II. By this time, enough electrical power could be provided by the Otter Tail Power Company to run the mill as equipment and electrical needs grew, according to Runningen. 

With the turbine gone, the block building has been largely unused since World War II. However, it was re-purposed as a tourist information booth for some years in the early 1970s. Otherwise, it has served as storage for city odds and ends—including the dozens of international flags that are displayed on the suspension bridge.  

This photo precedes the arrival of Pelican Pete, but distinctly shows the cement building that once housed a hydropower turbine. A windmill fixture was added, probably in the late 1950s, for visual appeal. For the most part, the building served no practical purpose other than storage since the turbine was

The decorative windmill fixture was attached, probably in the 1950s, for eye appeal—but it never was a functioning windmill. 

“I have not been able to find out who paid to have the windmill put on the building,” noted Runningen. “I do know for a fact that the local welder that built the Pelican, Anton Resset, also built the windmill. I think it was installed around 1958, however I have not been able to confirm that. My guess is that the local (Chamber of Commerce or business association) that pushed for the pelican also did the windmill, but I cannot be sure.” 

A view of the demolition of the so-called “windmill building,” which was torn down Jan. 24-25 as part of the dam removal and river restoration project.

With the removal of the dam, combined with the soil erosion around the structure that has threatened its stability for a number of years, the “windmill” building is more or less an inevitable “victim” of the overall Pelican River restoration project. 

Further rendering the windmill building obsolete is the new, 120-foot pedestrian bridge that will be installed. The footbridge will span the recreated natural rapids, where the dam once stood. 

Pelican Pete will overlook the rapids, below the bridge, when he is returned to the south side of the river. Pete will be perched in approximately the same patch of shoreline as the old windmill building. 

While the oddly shaped concrete building, with its make-believe windmill, is part of the nostalgic visual effect of Pelican Pete, the dam, and the waterfall; at least one youngster of the past had a different view, which she recorded on Facebook:

“That building was scary when we were young. I always thought there was something in there and ran past going home from swimming in the evening.”