Just beyond the bustling downtown of Osceola, Ridge Road contrasts the crowded storefronts with a scenic, meandering path. Like a slice of an endless country road from a Hollywood film, the summertime drive is set in a lush sea of green. Pristine rows of crops along the road stretch into the horizon, and, in the distance, the strange structure of an abandoned, sloped building rests among the vines and trees.
For many, the structure – a half-constructed windmill – is only an inconsequential piece of the landscape. For others, it inspires something creative and whimsical, as if it were the ruins of a long-forgotten childhood dream; out of place, yet perfectly at home, watching the old road for decades. For a few, the origins of the building are known, yet faded by memory.
Almost fifty years ago, cars were lined bumper-to-bumper at gas stations following the historic oil crisis. In 1973, an embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries brought fuel production to a halt.
As recovery from the oil shortage crawled on, interest peaked in an alternate fuel source: corn-based ethanol. A cheap solution that could be made by building a windmill.
Making a windmill required hard work, patience, and a solid understanding of aerodynamics. Osceola native Walter Piszczek had all of those things.
“He was a NASA capsule engineer on the Gemini Project and Apollo 1,” said Nicholas Piszczek, Walter’s son. “He was an airline pilot for Northwest Airlines and, before that, he was a Navy pilot.”
With an abundance of knowledge in aeronautical engineering, wind power mechanics came easy for Walter.
The early days of preparation found Piszczek and his son roaming the property, watching wind patterns, and finding the best spot for a windmill.
“I must have been about ten years old,” Nicholas remembered. “He’d send me up there with a little notebook, and he had an anemometer up on a big pole.”
Almost daily, the two
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would take readings and get an understanding of the wind in that area. From there, Walter Piszczek started making models in his basement and studying the mechanics of wind power.
Essentially, the windmill would generate power for fermentation equipment. Through an elaborate system, corn would be fermented and ultimately create ethanol.
“That’s what part of the power is for,” Walter Piszczek said. “Electricity, pumps, and fermenting.”
Construction began in the late 1970s. A few families around town helped with the building project, while Nicholas and his sister, Lara, watched and helped where they could.
The time spent working on the windmill was surreal. Nicholas would watch workers take breaks on the joists of the structure, carrying their metal lunch boxes. At night, Walter would take his two children up to the top of the building and watch the stars. Heightened over 60 feet above the ground, the kids would watch the sky for constellations and comets.
Then the project took a tragic turn.
By the 1990s, there was steady construction on the structure. Walter had been building the windmill as a hobby, while his piloting job took him away often.
Piszczek had been spending a substantial amount of money on the project. At that time, he encountered legal problems because he was producing renewable energy. Piszczek would have to pay thousands of dollars to keep the ethanol project going. More than he could afford.
But he wouldn’t go down without a fight. Piszczek went to William Mitchell College (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law) and earned a degree in Business Law.
“He took on the tax people in court,” Nicholas Piszczek said. “He did it all on his own, because he felt so strongly about it. He felt strongly about what he was doing, and he was being shut down.”
Even after becoming fluent in business laws, Piszczek was still denied his project and had to pay massive fees. After a long, difficult battle, the ethanol project was shut down. Construction of the windmill ended indefinitely.
“Nobody was happy, I wasn’t happy,” Walter said. “The investor wasn’t happy. . . . It was not a happy time.”
Over the years, the windmill started falling apart. The wood roof began rotting away after years without maintenance. Slowly, the old building sunk into the nature around it, becoming an organic and mystical addition to the view from Ridge Road.
The unique presence of the structure has always drawn people in for a closer look. Filmmakers from the Twin Cities have used it as a backdrop for movie scenes, and stargazers still go up on the roof to watch comets pass by.
As the saying goes, “like father, like son,” and this case is no exception. Nicholas followed in his dad’s footsteps and currently works in the business of renewable energy, installing solar panels. Recently, he has been pondering a remodel of the old windmill to make it useful again.
The angled walls of the structure would be ideal for solar panels and could generate a good deal of energy. Nicholas hopes the adjustments could be completed within the next year.
“In a sense, we’d return it right to what it was supposed to be in the first place,” Nicholas said. “It wouldn’t be for wind; it’d be for solar. But I think the structure itself is perfect for it.”
Whatever happens to the windmill in the future, the story it holds can be hopeful. Walter was as passionate about helping his community by providing renewable energy as he was about pushing the boundaries of engineering. Even though his project was terminated, the old almost-windmill has profoundly impacted each passersby spotting it in the distance, and every curious visitor lucky enough to take a nighttime climb up to the roof and watch the stars. For many, that unique building on the horizon of the farm field was no failure at all.