LIKE THE MAN OF LA MANCHA, BILL Dalley is something of a romantic. But Dalley, 59 and a retired high school counselor, prefers his windmills untilted at. With his assortment of 60 antique representatives of the breed, 15 of them lovingly restored and now spinning, creaking and groaning on his 20-acre spread in Portales, N.Mex., Dalley has assembled the largest private windmill collection in the U.S., maybe in all the world.

The machines, says Dalley, serve to "hold on to a little of the history of this area." His no longer perform any useful function, but around the turn of the century, windmills meant survival to the farmers and ranchers in these arid high plains. They drew water from deep wells and paved the way for the arrival of railroads, with their water-guzzling steam engines. So it went until rural electrification in the mid-1930s made windmills largely obsolete.

Although farm-bred in his native Oklahoma, Dalley didn't get hooked on windmills until about 10 years ago, when he stumbled across a pile of rusting machinery on a neighbor's ranch. He hauled the pieces home and spent a year restoring the windmill to working condition. Before long Dalley enlisted his wife, Alta, a retired schoolteacher, and their three children, Don, now 30, Diane, 28, and Sherri, 26, to help him scour the countryside for unwanted windmills. "It turned into a family project," Dalley says. "Although they tease me about it, they enjoy it."

Dalley is president of the International Windmillers' Trade Fair Association, which last year drew 100 enthusiasts from as far away as Australia to its annual meeting in Portales. His own collection has become a windmillers' Mecca, attracting 50 to 100 pilgrims a month. His oldest machine dates to around 1870, the newest to the 1930s, the tallest towering 32 feet, the largest with propellers 20 feet in diameter.

Low-tech though they are, windmills are fussy and require continual maintenance. But Dalley doesn't mind. "They keep me busy," he says, "and out of the pool hall."