Thursday, January 22, 2009

where water comes from...

Many years ago, my Aunt Kathy gave to her father a book. It was a mostly empty book, with lots of lined pages in it and printed prompts at the top of each page. The prompts asked simple, generic questions that anybody might ask in a "get to know you" sort of conversation. If you filled out all the prompts, however, you'd have a reasonably good stab at an autobiography. My Papa James, in spite of how intimidating that big empty book was, gave it a serious go in his last few years. Sometimes, he wrote only one word or one sentence in response to a prompt. Sometimes, he had so much to say that he'd write for three pages on one topic, ignoring the prompts on succeeding pages so he could tell his story. This is one of those, and if I say so myself, he's a great storyteller. I hope to grow up to be like him.

Today, I'm a Master's Degreed Civil Engineer with a specialty in Water Resources. I've never lived in a home that didn't have hot running water and modern plumbing and I spend most of my time thinking about how to protect water from the polluting influence of humans. This is my Papa's perspective on water. Change takes time, but -- WOW -- does it happen.
Just FYI, I have corrected misspellings and grammatical mistakes to make the meaning clear, but the text is otherwise unaltered.

Water, A Precious Commodity

When I was very young & even into adulthood, water was not readily available everywhere. If you lived in rural America, most likely your water supply was a well, or if in southern Louisiana, a cistern for rainwater. All over East Texas water was plentiful at about 30 ft. or so. Most people dug their wells about 3 ft. in diam. You could start out digging w/shovel & posthole diggers, but when it got into hard clay & then rock you had to use a flattened point bar & chip away one side while you stood on the other side. Then you scooped up the chips & put in a bucket & handed it up to or had someone else draw it out on a rope. You then got on the other side & did it again. This was a slow process but effectual.
After getting down to the first water, which was usually just a seep or trickle it got real messy, because from there on down the sides were wet clay mud. It was hard work & hot in summer & cold in winter. You needed to keep the walls round & straight, especially if you intended to run concrete tile in it to keep it from caving in later. At night seep water would accumulate & had to be drawn out before digging could resume.
After getting electricity & installing a pump & indoor plumbing, a lot of older wells had to be deepened to either hold more volume or down to another water vein. As long as people had to draw w/a bucket & rope, they were more conservative w/water. Some wells had to be 60 or 75 ft. deep to reach sufficient or good water. (n.b.: The next time you run water, remember these 3 pages)
I had to deepen our well when it got dry one year. It was hard to find someone to go down into a well & work. There was danger of caving & dropping a bucket on them. Humpy Fielder’s well was 75 deep & I helped him clean it out & deepened it a few feet. 5 gal. of mud gets awfully heavy drawing it up that far. Humpy was a trusting soul to work down in that well w/me, a 14 yr. old drawing mud. The hard part was drawing him back up, but by letting the tail of the rope down into the well, he could help pull himself up after he could reach the tail rope.
When water is this precious, you can take turns bathing in the same tub of water. You only use 1 glass full to brush your teeth. You dip your brush into the glass, brush, then wash your brush out in the glass of water, then spit & rinse your mouth w/the same glass of water. It looks kinda gross but your brush just came out of your mouth anyway. You swallow your spit, but if you spit it out into a spoon you wouldn’t want to put it back into your mouth & swallow. Ha. It’s all in your head!
Some people either were too lazy to dig a well or provide water near their home. They carried water from a spring, usually downhill from the house. Some people went to a stream to bathe. A very common practice when I was a small child. All the men & boys went to one hole & the women & girls to another. It was common to see tubs of water out in the sun warming for baths later on that day.
Wash water had to be drawn & heated in a big cast iron pot by wood fire. The clothes were boiled in that pot & rinsed in tubs. That was a chore, especially wringing by hand.
Without water in the house there was no bathroom. Every family had a chamber pot w/a lid to use at night or when someone was too sick to go to the outside toilet. The whole family used that one pot sometime & it got awfully full & smelly by morning, unless someone did the noble thing & went out & dumped it. If you were prosperous, you might have more than one pot. You could really know who was your pal when you were sick & needed your pot emptied.
Besides having to draw water for the family, the animals had to be watered. Even the hogs had to have a mud hole to wallow & stay cool in. A big mule or horse would drink more than 5 gal a day & cows almost as much. Teenage boys usually caught these chores. I almost always enjoyed drawing water except when the rope had ice on it. UGH!
Some people had a specially made bucket for milk to be kept in, down in the well. That way you could have cool milk for supper & it would keep 1 day w/out souring. If it soured a bit you could use it to make butter & buttermilk.
If an animal like a rat or mole or snake or cat got in the well & died the water would smell & taste bad so the carcass had to be gotten out & all the water drawn out. That was a big time job. Usually took hours of constant drawing to get the well empty, as water was constantly running in while you were drawing out. Bleach was then added to kill bacteria & you carried water from somewhere else for a few days. We had 2 wells & that was handy. It saved carrying water very far, too.


Meredith said...

Absolutely incredible. My mother remembers visiting her aunts in rural North Carolina during the early 40's and carrying buckets of clean water from a well down the hill while riding on a cow named Bessie

Thalassa said...

amazing... :) the same grandfather that wrote that story used to send the family e-mails about his daily doings. my favorite was one he wrote about sitting on the porch, sipping coffee, and shooting squirrels as they tried to get to his peach trees. sounds like your mom could tell similarly fascinating tales!

Anonymous said...

Reading this makes me miss Papa James something fierce! Thanks for sharing the wonderful memory of him...


RHKR said...

The only story my ancient mother has about the old-time water sources is one of getting her tongue stuck on the pump handle in the winter. Yup, that's the "genius" blood running through my family. She doesn't know why she stuck her tongue on it. I'd like to think that someone, probably an older sibling, dared her...just like in "A Christmas Story".

Thalassa said...

I think Papa James would have made an amazing blogger, Rach. I miss him, too!

RHKR: That's hysterical. Incidentally, it was your conviction that you needed to collect and write up your family history that inspired me to put this on the web.