by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Water is the elixir of life and no rural homestead at the turn of the century could have existed without a ready source. Not only was water important for daily chores like cooking, cleaning, and bathing, but absolutely necessary for keeping livestock and raising crops. A hundred years ago, finding land with a running stream or live spring was just as difficult and expensive as it is today, and not everyone could find or afford them. Those who found themselves without a ready source of water had to dig a well, build a cistern, or move on.
Last week I told the story of ol’ Granddaddy tree. At the foot of this 300-year-old behemoth lay the ruins of a house that was more than 100 years old when it was finally torn down. When the house was first built, Granddaddy was near middle-age – big enough to cast some nice shade across the new front porch of an evenin’. As is typical of the Ozarks, giant trees like this often mark the location of old homesteads and old wells and cisterns. In Granddaddy’s case, the old homestead he shaded had a cistern beside it, to catch the rain coming off of the roof.
Back then, most people who wanted to build a house or cabin on their land would call in the services of a water witch before they would lay down a single stick of lumber. Despite the dark moniker, water witches were most often just ordinary people who had a particular ability to locate underground water sources using divining rods constructed of various shapes and materials.
By far the most popular divining rod was a simple branch in the natural shape of a Y, cut from a willow, peach or cherry tree. Once the water witch had a suitable divination tool, he (for they were generally men) would grasp one end of the Y loosely in each hand and point the third end out front and parallel to the ground. Holding the stick lightly, the water witch would slowly walk back and forth over the desired area and when passing over a source of water, the forward tip would turn sharply and sometimes uncontrollably, towards the ground.
Sometimes several spots in a given area would be divined as having water located beneath them and after discussing the options with the landowner, the water witch would make his suggestion as to which location would produce the most successful well.
An experienced water witch could often tell the owner how much water could be expected from each site and at what depth it would be found. It was almost unheard of to pay a water witch – since the ability to find water in such a manner was surely a gift of God – but most water witches often accepted gifts in kind or a future favor for their services. Nowadays, water witches are more appropriately known as dowsers. And trust me when I say that many a new property owner still calls on the dowser to locate the spot for the well before a single board is laid down.
Once a source of water was located, it was up to the landowners to dig for it. Before the advent of heavy machinery and drills, people had to dig their wells by hand using nothing but their backs and a heavy pick and shovel. More often than not, hand dug wells and cisterns are between ten and thirty feet deep, roughly six feet wide at the bottom, and less than four at the top; the wider bottom being necessary to allow the digger room to swing a pick or shovel.
Usually, well digging was undertaken by at least two men; one down in the hole and one up above. The man in the hole had the most dangerous and messy job. He would pick and shovel the rocks, dirt and mud into buckets and the man at the top would haul them out using a sturdy rope. As the well went deeper, it became darker and darker. The steep sides were slick and the well often began filling with water before the hole was deep enough, leaving the digger standing in cold muddy water. Occasionally the walls of a well-being dug would cave in on the digger, burying him alive.
Obviously, the hope of every person digging a well was that they would hit a steady source of water quickly at shallow depths. Once it was deemed that the well had reached a place where fresh, clean water would fill the void, the sides of the well would be lined with rock or handmade brick, starting from the bottom and running to the top. The lining helped prevent the sides from caving in and kept the water clean of dirt.
Wells that filled with water seeping out of the earth were generally called living wells. If a well did not produce its own water, it would be coated with a heavy layer of waterproof mortar and used as a cistern. Water running off of the roof of a nearby structure would be diverted into the cistern using a combination of guttering and pipes. In those days, cisterns were often called wells, even if they did not produce their own water.
It is hard to tell from looking at the outside of this old structure if it is, in fact, a well or a cistern. To find out, I would have to open the lid and look down into it. While I’m not about to get that close to a big hole that was dug over a hundred years ago without some serious backup, the height and materials used to build the above ground portion of the structure makes me think of a well, even though its proximity to what I know was a house, points to it being a cistern.
I have heard stories about people who make a sport of searching for old wells and cisterns and rappelling down into them to search for hidden treasure. It has been said that during the Civil War, families would often throw valuable items such as money, silver, and fine jewelry into wells to avoid having them stolen by roving bands of militia and bushwhackers. Sometimes they fled, leaving everything, including their valuables, behind. And with the long history of famous gangsters using these secluded hills and hollers as hideouts, who knows where the loot might turn up today.
My mind temporarily wanders off to a world long gone. I imagine what life was like here one hundred years ago. I imagine what I might find in the bottom of this well if I could even find the nerve to look down into it. I try to envision all of the people and things ol’ Granddaddy tree has been a witness to in those long three-hundred years. All that is left now is a hole in the ground and a faint whisper in the branches.
© 2014 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.