Cool, Clear Water - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
With the mere flick of the wrist, one can turn on a tap and be rewarded with a stream of clear water, either hot or cold. This simple action in today’s world would be thought of as nothing less than a miracle by the early settlers of this area.
It is no accident that so many of the first settlements were sited along bodies of water. The rivers and streams would be the first sources of fresh water for human and animal consumption. Cattle and horses could be situated so they could get their own water. People would have had to carry buckets to the nearby stream and then carry the water back to the dwelling. Water is heavy, at 11 pounds per gallon, and the amount of water required for cooking and cleaning would make this an onerous task. Sometimes, a spring could be located nearby. Some sort of cribbing would have to be formed around the mouth of the spring to facilitate the scooping of water from it. Even today, some people have their own sources of aqua vitae from such springs. Two of them are located near Auburn and passersby may still see people at them filling up their jugs. Probably there are more springs in the local vicinity that could be enumerated.
The next step in the process of getting reliable water would be to dig down into the earth to find the water table. When driving through the rural countryside, have you ever wondered why some farm buildings were located quite close to the road while others stood a lot farther back on the property? The likely answer would be that the source of water dictated the most suitable location. How to find that water? Digging a number of test holes would be one way. Another would be to engage the services of a water witcher or douser. These are individuals who, with the help of a forked branch from a tree, can locate a likely place to dig for water.
The February 1992 issue of The Rural Voice profiled Merv Dow and Bill Lamport, both from the Exeter area, as successful water finders. And from the Wingham Advance Times in 1947, came the report that Robert Anderson, aged 86, a former Turnberry Township man, was still able to divine where water could be found. Some folks strongly believe in this practice and others do not.
Once the site for hand digging a well was chosen, the hard work began. Only one person could dig at a time because of space restraints. Once the hole was four feet deep, a second person was needed to send down a bucket on a rope for the earth to be hauled up to the surface in order to deepen the hole. The sides of the dug or shallow well needed to be reinforced using planks as curbing or cribbing. Because the temperature of water down in the ground is around 40°F, the shallow well was also used as a place to keep milk and butter cool.
The shallow well was not without drawbacks. If buckets were thrown down on a rope to scoop up water, there was a risk of contamination to the water. The sides of the well had to be built up to prevent runoff from rains going down the well. There was always the worry that children or animals could fall into the well. Diseases such as diphtheria were associated with improperly maintained wells. Once a cap was placed over the top and a hand pump installed, these dangers were minimized.
The bottom of the pump consisted of a casing, with a sucker rod inside, down in the well. The top body of the pump had a spout and a four-foot wooden handle, which when pulled up, forced the sucker rod to descend to the check valve down in the water and then pushed down to bring a volume of water to the spout. While this was a great improvement over carrying a bucket to the creek, it was also labour intensive.
The next refinement of the process was the inclusion of a windmill. This step also employed the casing, sucker rod and check valve system. However, a four-sided tower was erected over the well that had, at the top, a large wheel with tilted sails where it could catch the power of the wind. This large wheel rotated according to the wind speed and through a series of gears the circular motion was translated into an up-and-down pull on a long shaft. The wheel had a vane attached that would turn it to the most optimum direction to catch the wind.
Windmill machinery could be disengaged at the times when water was not required. There would also be a hand pump that could be used to obtain water in times when wind power was not available. Windmills are still being manufactured as there is a market for them, especially on the farms of the Amish and Mennonites.
As time went on, progress brought the gasoline engine to power the pump and then the advent of electricity advanced the process of obtaining water even more. In 2022, rural wells are not dug by hand, but rather are drilled by companies such as W.D. Hopper and Sons Ltd. or Steffen Well Drilling. Underground pipes and pressure systems carry water right into houses and barns for almost instantaneous use.
Obtaining water has come a long way in 180 years or so. Imagine the surprise of a pioneer woman if she could see the “pot filler tap” installed behind the kitchen range, bringing water right to the cooking surface with very little effort on the part of the person doing the cooking!