Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978


by Joe Jeffery

Illustrated by Patsy Watts

Early settlers in the Ozarks area first relied on the numerous natural springs for their water supply. Since most springs were downhill and some distance from the house, getting the day's supply was a lot of hard work. "We didn't use near the water we do now," Lois Beard said. "I'd say we'd use thirty gallons a day and that's a lot of buckets when a bucket was two and a half gallons. Our dishwater and bathwater was always saved and used for scrubbing the floors or slopping the hogs. The last thing we usually did of a night was to go get a couple buckets of water."

Water for stock was also a problem for many. There were no large ponds gouged out of the earth in a few hours with a bulldozer. Instead, there were small ponds painstakingly dug with a team and a slip, but they would go dry. Then farmers would either have to take the stock to a river or find some other solution. The best solution for household and stock needs was a well.

The early wells were hand dug, usually round, though there were some large wells that were dug in a square shape. They varied from three to four feet in diameter up to as large as ten feet or more. They had to be at least big enough for a man to swing a pick. The depth of the wells varied from home to home. Sometimes the settler could go twelve feet and have a good water supply, and other times he might have to go down a hundred feet. He would dig until he hit a seep or. a stream of underground water which would supply his need. Then the hole was rocked up to hold and protect the water.

The forests covering a large part of the Ozarks are an important factor in the water systems. When rain falls in the forest, leaves hold it until it can seep down in the ground. This water then goes through the earth down to the layers of rock it can't penetrate, causing small streams which flow to the lowest point and often form water tables. The early wells tapped these small streams, but today, with greater need of water and lowering of water tables, drilled wells going as deep as 300 feet use only the water tables.

Cliff Wallace started drilling wells in 1933. "We drilled a lot of wells only a hundred and some odd feet deep and some less than a hundred. I quit drilling about a year and a half ago and it averaged about 300 feet. I think a lot of that was caused by the amount of wells being drilled. One time in the fifties we had drilled a lot of wells and they were good wells, we thought. In that drought, they went dry. We would go back and drill them deeper; some of them didn't have a drop of water in them."


Earlier people were satisfied if they had enough water to fill a bucket when needed, therefore, they could use seeps. Cliff continued. "Most of the shallow dug wells were just a seep well. Oh, sometimes they'd hit a stream when they dug them. They dug in a dry time and when they'd get down deep enough, they would catch some water. Maybe when they'd leave it all night, the ground would be a little moist the next morning. In the rainy time the water is closer to the surface, then it gets lower and lower. This is the water that would seep into the well. That was the source of water. This well of mine out here in front of the house, at times you can see the water running in. The surface water goes down so many feet and then there is a layer of sandrock and this seepage is coming in between the sandrock and the dirt formation above. It gets to the rock, then runs over to the well and drips in.

"I don't know why, but water out of a shallow well or cistern like that is much colder than out of a deep well. I don't know how many degrees, but it is colder. On a summer day I can go and pump a drink of water and tell whether it's a shallow or deep well by how cold the water is."

Other people were lucky enough to hit a strong stream close to the surface. Lois said, "It's amazing on certain veins, water is so much closer to the surface than others. Where my dad lived, that well isn't more than thirty of forty feet to the bottom, but I've seen it when you could dip the

Windlasses were sometimes used to remove the dirt while digging wells and cisterns.

As you cranked this handle the chain would rotate and the cup would scoop up water and pour it through the spout. Thus the name chain and cup pump.

Ozark housewives made many trips to the well each day with their trusty rope and bucket.

Rainfall soaks down to solid limestone flows to the lowest point and supplies the well with water.


One of many types, an old pitcher pump. (by steve Hardcastle)

Joe Jeffery coaxes a rusty pump to yield clear well water once again.(by Mary Schmalstig)

Cliff and Louise Wallace have saved this dug well and used it as a part of their front lawn landscaping. (by Joe Jeffery)

After deciding on digging a well, the first thing was to pick the location. Lois said, "They'd go out and take a crowbar or something and keep punching around till they found a spot they thought there was more dampness than in another spot. In the summer time if you find a damp spot four or five feet down, you know water is pretty easy to get at." Sometimes, people would have a water witcher come and decide where would be a good place to dig.

The actual digging process was really quite simple. They would mark off as big a well as needed and start in with a pick and shovel, like digging a grave, dynamiting if they hit solid rock. A lot of the dug wells have a big mound of dirt around them which has never been moved away. Sand and gravel pockets in the walls sometimes made it difficult to keep the wall true.

Digging in the rocky, cherty Ozark soil is not easy. In many places there is only a thin layer of top soil, then the hardpan, a heavy, extremely hard packed clay formation, to break through. Ozarkians have taken a lot of ribbing about their poor soil where the hardpan is on top of the ground. "No, it ain't," is the common quick retort. "It's under a layer of rock." Cliff betters that answer. "Sometimes the hardpan is up on top of the fence posts!" But once through the one and a half to fifteen feet of hardpan, the digging is easier in the clay and flint rock where most water is found.Many times if people ran into trouble or didn't want to dig their own well, there would usually be someone in the community that could help. From their experience, they would know how to dig the well and how to help in trouble spots.

In the Ozarks, sometimes diggers didn't go very far down before they hit solid rock. In this case they either took a bar and pounded through or used dynamite to break up the rock. They had to be careful, though, to avoid blowing up the walls.


"It is very dangerous to dig a well," Cliff said, "because they work without anything above them to keep that rock and stuff from falling in on them until they get through and wall it up. Some of them might have put in boards or timber to hold the dirt back. But in time they would have had to take out the supports and wall it up with rock, then fill in behind with dirt and gravel or sand."

In the process of digging there were other dangers. One of these was the constant danger of a poison gas. Cliff said, "In those days they called it foul air, bad air, the damps. Air without oxygen is what I think it was. In digging those wells they had what they called a sail which was about five or six feet in diameter at the top and had a wire or wooden band to hold it apart. It was made of canvas and flared out at the top more like a sail and then it tapered down to a tube ten to twelve inches in diameter that went down in the well. They would turn the sail to the wind and let it catch the wind and blow it down in there. It would drive the bad air out and put the oxygen in. They claimed you could tell when the bad air was there, because when you went down in the well, you would have a hard time getting your breath."I've heard that years ago they used canaries to put down in the well. If a canary could live, so could a person. That bad air was usually in a well that had been dug a long time ago and hadn't been worked in for a long time. I've heard about people getting in that bad air while they were cleaning out the well or cistern."

There are now many different contaminants other than foul air in the environment and quite often they find their way to these shallow dug wells. Cliff said, "A person probably wouldn't even drink the water now. I'd say most of the problem is from the septic tanks and lagoons, because there are more wells, more buildings and septic tanks all the time. We drilled wells in places where they never heard of bad water, but later on they got to building houses and they got bad water in their water supplies. I'd say where most of it comes from is where a well caved in and was left standing there, and someone put a septic tank near which flowed into it."

Ozark ingenuity--a child's wagon covers this dug well. (Mary Schmalstig)

Though now clogged with debris, this well had supplied countless gallons of fresh . (by Joe Jeffery)

Mary Schmalstig samples the hand pumped well water. (staff photo)


A top to the well kept children, dogs, cats and other undesirable animals from drinking out of the well. This was sometimes a platform of boards with a box about knee high to drop a bucket through. Sometimes the box would be large enough for two buckets to be in the well at the same time. They would be rigged for one to go down while the other came up.

Other tops were a small cement pad built around the well and perhaps a cement top built on that. One unusual top is one made from the bed of a child's wagon.

There were usually only three ways to get water out of a dug well: a windlass, a bucket on a rope and if you had the means, a pump.

The windlass was a round beam set in the cradle of two Y-shaped posts. This beam had a rope fastened on with a bucket on the end. The beam had a crank on the end to let the bucket down in the water and then crank until it wound the rope enough to reach the bucket.If just a rope and a bucket was all there was, the rope was tied to the bucket bail and let down to the water to fill up, and then pulled up "by main strength and awkwardness."A sucker-rod pump had a cylinder at the bottom of the pipe that would pull up a slug of water each time the handle pumped. Some of the more modern kitchens would have had a pitcher pump. This had a cylinder near the top which would have to be primed from the top by pouring some water down the pump.

While visiting with Lois we learned of some stories about hand dug wells. "One woman was getting water in one day when the rope on her bucket broke. She thought she could climb down--there were some rocks that stuck out. She climbed down and got the bucket but she couldn't get back out. She had to stay there on a little rock ledge till her husband got in at noon to get her out."

To a little boy, a well can be a very interesting place. "A very inquisitive boy I knew was always sticking his nose into everything. He and another little boy were playing in the yard. This kid got to wanting to know what was in that well, and fell in. It was almost empty and since they hadn't cleaned it out, it was just gooey mud. When they brought him out covered with that old gooey mud all over him and his little eyes just a-shining, his mother fainted!"With the coming of the drilled well, hand dug wells became another relic of a by-gone era. Though some wells are still used today for watering cattle and even household use, most have gone dry due to the lowering of the water tables.

But these old wells still hold an attraction for people. Often, the remains of an old well which has been filled in will be the last reminder of an old homestead. Other homesteads, long deserted, still have lonely pumps standing guard over a well full of memories.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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