Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978


Written and photographed by Mary Schmalstig

Everything changes eventually, and man's usage of water systems is no exception. From settlers who came to the new world and established their homes by a spring or river, to the use of rain barrels to catch pure water from cloud bursts, to storing water in underground cisterns, to modern city water towers, man's water supply changed with his changing needs. Throughout the time of man, each change has erased an old time tradition. Cisterns too are becoming a fast disappearing way of life.

Cisterns, manmade underground reservoirs that store water for household use, could be built round, square or any shape desired. Sizes vary greatly, from as small as four feet in diameter to as big as fifteen, ranging in depth from nine feet to as deep as twenty feet, depending on individual water needs of the family. The walls, six to eight inches thick, had many different linings--clay, brick, cement or hard smooth rock--although cement is the most common material for modern cisterns. All were watertight so no impurities would seep through and water would not seep out.

Unlike a dug well, a cistern had no natural seep or stream flowing into it, so water had to be hauled or put in some way. In early times water was hauled from a nearby spring. This was a long, taxing process, using a bucket, barrel, team and wagon. Men hauled the empty barrel to the spring in the wagon. Men filled the barrel by hand, hauled the barrel to the cistern, and, again by hand, dumped the water into the cistern. Many trips were needed to fill a cistern.


People installed eave troughs on their house and nearby barns and other buildings close to the cistern to catch the rainwater. In this photo, note the eave troughs on all three buildings. The cistern is located in the center barn. The cistern, still in use, was built in 1910. It is 12' x 30' x 8' and holds seven feet, five inches of water. (staff photo)

Many people expanded the idea of having a rain barrel to supply their water needs, eliminating hauling water to the cistern. They installed eave troughs on their house and nearby barns and other buildings close to the cistern to catch the rainwater. Rain would run down the roof, into the eave trough, into the down spout and into the cistern.

The size of these cisterns would depend on how often rain fell. In case of little rain, the cistern would be big to store large amounts of water for long periods of time. Where there was an abundant rainfall to refill the cistern often, it did not need to be as large.

Cisterns were popular in the 30's, but after 1940 were rarely built. At one time people depended on a cistern because no other source of water was available. In some places water was miles away, and underground water streams were too far to dig until modern well drilling machinery. It's less likely for people today to use a cistern because it is easier to use the water from a county waterline or to have a well, requiring less care and upkeep, drilled.

But some people even today prefer a cistern to a well or water from a waterline. The soft, pure water of a cistern is a major advantage. The water stays cool year round and doesn't freeze in the winter. Since the rain goes into the cistern, mud puddles around the house won't exist.But cisterns have disadvantages to match the advantages. Eave troughs and filters have to be cleaned as do the cisterns. Trees will drop leaves blossoms and other pollutants in. Roots can crack the walls. The water supply depends on rainfall and in drought years can be an ever present worry. A cistern is especially undesirable in big industrial cities because their pollution would contaminate the water.

Clay Gum is one of those people for whom the advantages of a cistern outweigh the disadvantages. He dug cisterns all over this country, including the one by his house which furnishes his water needs. He hasn't dug many since 1940, but Clay at 82 years old still has an occasional call for him to dig one.

Clay dug them all year round though most were dug in the spring or summer months. "It didn't matter what time you dug them. It was just any time you want or just when you needed to." Clay dug cisterns in about two to three weeks, working eight to twelve hours a day, but it depended on the hardness of the dirt, the weather and the depth.


After selecting a convenient site near the house, the next step was digging "I would always dig mine round. Most were round, not square. Most measured six feet across, but some are five and some four feet. The size and depth was determined by how large the family was and what they used the water for. It's just any size you wanted. If you wanted to, you could make them sloped down on each side, but I always made mine straight up and down."

The cisterns were dug with a pick and shovel. The men dug down and shoveled out to one side the dirt until they were so deep they couldn't throw out any more dirt. Then they used a simple device, a windlass, usually a round wooden beam held by two forked supports driven in the ground. One end of a long rope was fastened to the beam and the other end to a bucket. The beam when turned raised or lowered the bucket. The man in the hole filled the bucket with dirt, the man on top wound the bucket up, then dumped it. Frequently, hitting solid rock would slow up the construction, necessitating dynamiting the rock. The workers lowered someone down to drill a hole. He slipped the dynamite in the hole and lit it. His co-worker raised him out as quickly as possible. The dynamite usually blew away the rock, so they could continue digging.

After the cistern was the desired depth and shape, the next step was to wall up the sides strong enough to hold water and keep out tree roots. Several different materials were used. Early cisterns used a clay and dirt plaster to seal the walls. Rocks or bricks, morticed together made a much more durable lining. Cement was the latest material used. "They'd mix cement and make a plaster out of it and plaster it on the wall."

This old time filter left to decay was an important part of the past. The filter had gravel and charcoal to purify

Sometimes after the cistern was rocked to within six feet of the surface, they would shape the opening like the top of a jug, gradually sloping the sides in until the opening was only eighteen to twenty-four inches across. Dirt filled in the cavity, giving the cistern, or jug well, the appearance of a giant jug buried in the ground.

Pipe leading to cistern shown on page 14. The two top pipes come from two different buildings. The bottom left pipe leads to the cistern and the right back outside. The handle in the center closes the pipe not desired.


The jug well was rocked up within six feet of the surface, then gradually sloped in on the sides until the opening was only eighteen to twenty-four inches across. Below--This jug well was dug in the late 1800's and the hole in the center of the big rock was cemented in when the cistern was no longer used.

People sometimes intended to dig a well, but would not reach a water seep. So, they walled up the well and converted it to a cistern.

The next thing would be to make a platform for the top. Unlike the jug well with the opening flush with the ground, most were one and one-half feet tall and about two feet square, so no one would fall in. There was a hole in the middle of the platform for a bucket to go through. The hole was covered when not used.

After the cistern was dug and finished, the last step was the filter to clean water that was piped off the roof. Filters varied greatly and were not always used. The first filters were layers of different sized gravel and charcoal. But later bigger, better ones were built with different layers of gravel, sand and charcoal. The first tray held gravel, the next sand, the next a finer sand and the last tray held charcoal.

staff photo


The filter wasn't really necessary because rainwater is pure and if the roof was not very dirty, it was safe not to use one. If the filter wasn't cleaned very often, it would carry bacteria, and make the water unsafe to drink. If the roof was dirty, letting the roof rinse off before letting the rain flow in the cistern allowed only clean water in the cistern.

Cisterns were usually cleaned out once a year in the spring and summer months. When the cistern was almost dry was the best time to clean. The windlass bucket was used to shovel out the debris on the bottom of the cistern like it was used when the cistern was dug. The walls were then washed down with vinegar water or Purex and scrubbed with a broom or brush. Then clean water rinsed the cistern out. Cleaning the cistern also gave an opportunity to examine the walls for any cracks or leaks and repair them.Cisterns have been used for years to store rainwater or hauled water. But now in modern days with the proliferation of drilled wells and county water systems, the use of cisterns has decreased to almost extinction. People like Clay Gum who are willing to go out in the snow for a bucket of water are few. But old half emptied, debris filled cisterns still dot the countryside, a step in man's development of modern water systems.

Top--Pipe draining water into a cistern. Tree roots like the one behind the pipe were a problem in the upkeep of the cistern. Bottom--The platform built up was to keep children and animals from falling in the cistern.

Our gratitude is extended to the following Persons for without their knowledge this story could not have been written: Mrs. Lyn Marble, Earl Rhoads and Cliff Wallace.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues

Local History Home

 Springfield-Greene County Library