The Windmills of Highlands Ranch

Windmills served a vital role in rural America. In the days before what is today’s Highlands Ranch, windmills dotted the landscape. The early settlers erected them to harness wind power to pump up underground water—a precious resource in this dry high-plains desert—for their farms and ranches. Water-pump windmill anatomy was simple–a tall tower held the wheel outfitted with blades/sails, while the vane/tail behind the wheel moved in the direction of the wind. A gear mechanism going down from the wheel through the tower into the ground would convert the wind movement into pumping action, with the water coming up from underground. The mills were simple, well-constructed, and dependable for life on the Plains.

We have evidence of 5 windmills in the area:  The Mansion, Grig’s Pine Tree Ranch, Failing-Douglas Ranch, The Cheese Ranch, and modern-day Windcrest!  Each one has an interesting story to tell about Windmills and their uses.

Two of these windmills still standing today are iconic landmarks of Highlands Ranch.

Mansion Windmill

The windmill south of the historic Highlands Ranch Mansion was the primary water source for ranching operations and the Mansion. Built 130 years ago, the Mansion was home to a series of prominent owners.

One of the owners, Lawrence Phipps, Jr., purchased the property in 1937 and changed the name from Diamond K Ranch to Highlands Ranch. The Mansion windmill was already well established on the ranch, since at least the Waite Phillips ownership when the ranch was known as Highland (no “s”) Ranch.

During Phipps’ era, there were two windmills here, one of which still remains.  Perched high on the hill south of the Mansion, it is visible from many parts of the Ranch, both now and then.  This one is a bit unusual for the area, as the tower exterior is made from round field stones, not the typical wooden or metal tower base.   There is a reservoir at the base of the structure, with open water accessible for use and for gravity drainage to other parts of the Ranch, as needed.

In describing the windmill’s stone tower, son Lawrence Phipps III said, “The stone building housed rattlesnakes and we had to go in with a revolver, while the reservoir routinely required cleaning as deep muck collected on the bottom.”  When Mission Viejo purchased the property, they tested the water in the reservoir and well, and determined it needed cleaning, so they brought in bottled water for the staff until the water and the well met their quality standards.  Jim Toepfer, the President of Mission Viejo Colorado Operations, always chuckles when he tells that story about the well.

“The Mansion’s field-stone windmill, now powered by electricity, is a beloved symbol for the community,” said Nancy Linsenbigler, past president of Highlands Ranch Historical Society and Docent at the Mansion. “During Mansion tours, one of the favorite places is the view of the windmill, with the sky above and the field below.”

The Mansion windmill wheel with blades toppled during a summer storm in 2016. Thankfully HR Metro District was able to repair the damage, and replace the wheel with another Aermotor.  The current windmill rotates with the wind, but it is not actually connected to the pumping of water anymore.  It does, however, provide a beautiful and visual reminder of the area’s ranching heritage.

During the renovation of the Mansion, in 2010-2012, it was discovered that there were 2 cisterns underneath the dining room floor.  These cisterns held water for the Mansion household use, which would have been delivered from pipes, originating at the windmill.

Click HERE  for the Damaged Windmill 2016 article in the HR Herald.

ClickHERE for the Windmill Damage Repair 2017 article in Colorado Community Media.

Click HERE(link is external) for a neat jigsaw puzzle on


Another iconic windmill is in the Cheese Ranch Historic Park. The Big Dry Creek Cheese Ranch was a major homestead and large working ranch in the northernmost section of Douglas County from 1879 until its sale to Lawrence Phipps in 1943.  The ranch had been home to many family members of Johann Welte and Placiduo Gassner.  This mill towers over homes in the nearby Cheese Ranch neighborhoods. The windmill is not the original and was built after a committee of homeowners came up with a suitable replacement for the original windmill, which was dated from 1917, in bad repair, and required a great deal of maintenance. This vintage replacement for the Cheese Ranch windmill is also an Aermotor.  Click here more information on Aermotor Co and windmills in general.    (link is external) The replacement windmill had initially worked by the wind keeping a pump running that aerated the adjacent pond.  Nowadays, the windmill is only decorative and educational, as the pond aeration is powered by solar power.

Cheese Ranch Original Windmill Below:

Cheese Ranch Windmill of today:

Click  HERE  for the 2002 Cheese Ranch Windmill Replacement Article


The Grigs Ranch, home of Lafayette and Lorinda Grigs from 1878-1925, also known back then as the Pine Tree Ranch, had a wooden windmill close to the front of the house.  We have no other information on the windmill, other than this picture, which was probably taken in 1979 during a visit by William Grigs and his wife Norma.   The windmill is gone, and the house is almost gone as well, but the wind still blows through these Back Country hills surrounding the long-ago homestead, ready to work again if needed.


The Failing Homestead and Douglas Investment Company property is also located in the southwest portion of the Back Country.  It was a large working ranch from 1876 to 1950, having been established by Henry Failing for his large and extended family.  The windmill is still in place, even tho the homestead itself is abandoned to the wind and visited by HRCA Staff and visitors on a controlled basis.  So the windmill and farm are seldom seen, but somehow there is comfort in knowing that yet another windmill is in place in the Highlands Ranch of today, ready to greet visitors and maintaining that pioneer spirit of yesterday.

The Windmill at the Failing property is a Fairbanks Morse.  Henry Failing purchased a Monarch Well Drill and drilled his own well as several around the Sedalia area.  Henry was also well known for installing one of the first Fairbanks & Morse Eclipse windmills on his property as well as building a 16,000-gallon cistern for well-water storage.


Windcrest Senior Living community on the far north-western edge of Highlands Ranch is our final windmill location.  While this property used to be part of the Plews to Fly’N B land, it is now transformed into a modern community of towering residential buildings.   There is no need for an actual windmill to provide water.  Visually, however, the windmill, consisting of a tall stone tower with an Aermotor wheel on top, brings the visitor and resident alike instantly back to the ranching and farming heritage of this land.  The Plews property was well known for its large and extensive greenhouses and landscaping business, with irrigation and water supply always in demand in such an endeavor.  The final owner prior to Erickson was the John Bowen family, who were ranchers with a long history in the area. The modern-day windmill greets people as they enter and signals goodbye as they leave.

The fixed wheel, though decorative and still, is engaging and attracts attention immediately.   It seems to be looking both back at the farming and ranching heritage of Highlands Ranch, as well as forward to the bright modern future that awaits and typifies this vibrant community.


Mary Elliott, a local artist who had supplied art for many years for the Highlands Ranch Cultural Affairs Association, depicted the Mansion Windmill in her painting for the 30th anniversary of Highlands Ranch.   The windmill is a beauty, set against an interesting sunset sky.

Written by Shirley Cavanaugh, HRHS Publicity Chair, March 2021 for HR 40th Anniversary