Volume VII, No. 4, Summer 1980


Suppliers of the Ozarks' Many Springs

by Gina Jennings, Photographed by Mary Schmalstig

Seventy years ago a small girl on her way to school loved to pause by the Charley Wood Spring which was in a rock formation under the crest of a tiny wood-covered hill. She would get a cold drink and savor the beauty all around before the long day at school. The small basin where the water came up was a round hole just big enough to dip in a bucket. Though it wasn't too deep, the water was always cold and bubbly. Little ferns grew among the rock. Occasionally she would meet the Wood children getting water for the house or the mother bringing their basket of wash to boil in the black iron kettle which stayed in a little cleared place just by the spring. The spring branch disappeared in the lush water-cress below, but the girl knew that it flowed through both the Charley and Eli Wood barnyards, supplying water for all the animals at both farms.


In an abandoned area nearby there was another spring that emptied into Cobbs Creek near Oakland called the Willie Owens Spring, where a generation earlier the girl's grandmother did her washing. Since this spring was in a wooded area half a mile from any house or barn, stock seldom used it, and it was too far away to carry water for the house. It had plenty of water, making it a good place for the family to take its washing, for it was easier to go there to wash than to carry water home to do the laundry. The husband would hitch up the team, the wife and daughters would load the wagon with soiled clothes, kettle, tubs, washboard and soap, and he would drive them to the spring. While the husband returned home to work, the women at the spring spent the morning building a fire under the kettle to heat the water, scrubbing the clothes clean on the board with lye soap and afterwards rinsing them off with the spring water.

These two springs and thousands of others in southern Missouri are part of the Ozark spring, sinkhole and cave systems. Fifty million years ago the whole area was only a sea floor bottom, with no rock at all. Over the eons seashells, mud and silt falling to the bottom compacted together, forming limestone and dolomite rock. The land was uplifted and eventually formed the Ozark Plateau.

Through the millions of years that have gone by, some of the soluble limestone rock has been eaten away forming a porous underground system. This porous condition occurred because carbon dioxide from the root tips of plants dissolved in the water to form a mild carbonic acid. The weak acid water filtered down through the soil and through the cracks in the rocks. The acid worked on the limestone rock to enlarge the pathways and openings, slowly dissolving out the rock and forming caves. This process has taken millions of years and is still continuing. When the water hit a hillside or bluff where it reached the surface, it became a spring. Springs also surfaced when there was enough pressure underground to force the water up.

Sinkholes are an integral part of the spring-cave system. Sinkholes, some from a mile in diameter to only a few feet, are actually only sunk-in places. When the rock over an underground cave became thin enough from years of erosion from the acidified water, the roof fell in, creating the sinkhole. Some sinkholes have water in them, others are dry.

The sinkholes in the Ozark area become drains for surface water, almost like a plug in a bathtub. Surface water enters them and disappears underground. The entire underground water system is like a pipeline. Water will go through the cracks in the rocks and reach the underground water system that supplies the wells and springs as drinking water.

For an example, West Plains built a large lagoon not far from the town. They didn't know that they built it above an underground cave. Recently the rock of the cave roof cracked from the pressure of impounded water, allowing the sewage to get into the underground water system. Suddenly people for miles around began getting sick because the whole area was supplied with water pumped up from wells which tapped the underground water. Since the water was polluted for miles around, people had to haul in drinking water for themselves and their stock.

Another though not so serious incident of impounded water falling into the cavern systems was in the Lebanon area. A farmer had a big full pond one day, and the next it was empty. The pond drained out and then the pressure of the water from the cave backed up into the pond. The pond water kept going up and down like this for years. There are other examples of ponds that went dry suddenly. They were full one day, the next dry because of some underground weakness which let the water sink.

Sometimes when a top falls out of a cave there is danger of something losing its life in the process. The Laurie Pond located eight miles out of Lebanon was a broad, rather shallow pond used for watering stock. One day the top fell completely out of the underlying cave forming a sinkhole. The water that was already in the cave along with the pond water made the pond very deep after it happened. An ox harnessed to a wagon, watering as usual walked out into the pond and found itself in very deep water. It sank along with the wagon.

After this incident someone from a boat tried to touch bottom with a weight tied on the end of an eighty foot rope. When he could not touch bottom, he knew that the pond had been built right on top of a cave which became a sinkhole.

The head of Crane Creek.

The Ozark hills are full of springs like this one.


In the Ozarks there is a very fragile underground water system because of the type of topography and the thin soil. In some places there is very little if any top soil for the surface water to filter through in contrast to areas in the northern part of the state where the top soil is as much as three to four hundred feet deep. There it takes so much time for the water to filter through that in the process it is purified. But in the Ozarks because of thin top soil and because of numerous sinkholes which send the run-off water underground instead of into the streams, surface water often drains immediately into the underground streams with very little filtering action. The people who come to the Ozarks, and even the native Ozarkians, often have no understanding nor consideration for the underground water systems. When they find a sinkhole, they often dump their trash. Then when there is a hard rain, surface water from acres around drain into the sinkhole, through trash and into the cracks in rocks, polluting the underground water.

The problem with sinkholes and the underground water system is only a recent one. Fifty years ago and before, the extensive spring system and plentiful water was quite an asset. The abundant, clean spring water furnished all household and farm needs. People used the water for drinking, watering stock, bathing, washing clothes and in a few specialized cases, developed industries from the springs such as using the water to power mills or raise young fish. One such specialized use was at Bennett Spring State Park where the Missouri Conservation Commission has developed trout hatcheries. Since spring water keeps the same annual temperature of 56° to 57° year round, it makes it possible for trout to grow and reproduce.

The spring at Bennett is most unusual. Most springs come out of a bluff or hillside. At Bennett Spring, the spring comes up in a valley. There is a fracture or fault zone, about 110 feet below the surface. At some time in the past there was a slab of rock completely connecting the stream to a cave filled with water. Then after an earthquake occurred, the rock cracked and the underground pressure caused the water to surface through this access.

There are several little springs like this one in the Bennett Spring area. (by Gina Jennings )

This spring, walled in to keep the cattle from muddying it up, still waters the stock in two different lots. (by Mark Engsberg )

There are yet old spring houses standing, like this one on Crane Creek.


But the strange thing is, there is a remnant spring across the hollow by the hill where the water flowed out. Then after the earthquake cracked the rock causing the water to surface in the new opening in the valley, it cut off the water to the previous spring.

In 1971 divers came from the St. Louis Underwater Recovery team to find out how deep Bennett Spring actually is. Going straight down divers were able to go only eighty to eighty-five feet where the conduit became so narrow and the current so swift that they were pushed back. At that point there was an action something like a windmill. The water was churning and spinning around. Pebbles were spinning along with it, polishing them smooth and round.

The spring is estimated to have a flow of 96 million gallons a day. The lowest amount of flow was 36 million gallons and maximum 150 million gallons, making Bennett Spring one of the four largest springs in Missouri.

Because of its uniqueness and size, there is much history about Bennett Spring. In earlier years the spring powered a mill. Every year right after harvest, people from many miles drove their wagons to the mill to grind their grain into breadstuff, like flour and meal. While there they sometimes had to wait in line a week to grind their grain. Since the trip there was usually in a slack season, people took advantage of the free time and beautiful location for many activities. They held revival meetings, went fishing and had all kinds of fun. Since the whole family came, it wasn't boring or tiresome waiting their turn.

BENNETT SPRING -- Cut-away view of the fourth largest spring in Missouri. It is unusual in that the water surfaces on level ground with great force.

On the way to the mill, since the people came from afar, they often stopped just before getting there at another spring called Four Mile Spring because it is four miles from Bennett Spring. Since the people would be tired from the riding and the stock would be thirsty, they stopped to rest before reaching the mill. There, at a little store, they bought snacks for lunch such as cheese and crackers before going to the cool spring to eat. Afterwards the kids got together and maybe started up a ball game in the field across the road from the spring.

The Four Mile Spring was also used during the dry season as it was the only source of water for quite a ways. Back then not everyone had ponds as is the case today, for there were no power machines to dig the ponds. So when everything was dried up, people would come maybe four, five or six miles just to water their stock each day. The spring had a rock that covered the spring itself so that the water directly from the spring would be clean for the people while the stock watered farther down the spring branch.


Once sources of pure, tasty water, the many springs in the Ozarks are now endangered by pollution. Because of the porous condition of the underground rock formations, ground water is not filtered, but drains directly into underwater streams. Septic tanks, industrial development, trash and agricultural chemicals all find their way into the underground water which surfaces in many places into springs.

The spring branch runs all the way to Bennett Spring during rainy weather, but part of it goes underground in places in the gravel in Woodred Hollow, which empties into Spring Hollow, Bennett Spring's main tributary.

Most of the numerous springs in the Ozark area have a name based on such things as its shape, Rattlesnake Spring, the amount of flow, such as Drip Spring, the property owner or its nearness to some place such as Willie Owens Spring and Long Ford Spring.

There are many different uses of springs. The watering of farm animals, source for household drinking water and laundry are just a few. At one time the coldness of the spring water was used for refrigeration. There was often a little house built over the spring, only big enough to walk in. The spring branch would run right through inside where there was usually a bottomless wooden box which sat down into the spring water in which the women would set their crocks of milk, cream or butter to keep the food from spoiling. The cold water would come up in the box deep enough to sink a bucket down under all the way when getting water for the house.

Springs did not have to come out by the gallons to be useful. They can be just as valuable by producing only one drop at a time, as did Drip Spring in Wildcat Hollow. In the 1950's after several years of drought, it did not go dry when most other springs and ponds did. During this time the spring supplied water to over thirty head of cattle. A pipe stuck into the hillside where the water oozed out led the water to a watering tank several feet down the slope. The continual non-stop drip eventually filled the big tank and kept it replenished as the cattle drank from it all during the dry summer.

Springs in the present as well as the past are also enjoyed for the pleasure they give--the cool breeze that blows across the water, the cold, sweet taste of the water and the lush green hues of many kinds of vegetation surrounding it, not to mention the pleasure of sitting quietly and watching the crawdads, frogs, water spiders or, if quiet enough, a turtle, a heron or a muskrat.


The spring in Bat Cave over the millions of years has carved out this impressive entrance.

Johnson's Sink is an example of a cave whose ceiling, weakened by years of water action, has fallen in. (by Stephen Hough )



This small spring in the face of a bluff has a natural basin to hold water.

Pebbles at the old remnant spring at Bennett. These have been polished by the hundreds of years of tumbling in the agitated spring water. (by Mike King )

Water from this seep spring has been channeled by the pipe to a more accessible place for people and stock.

In the hot summer families sometimes packed a dinner for a picnic on Sunday afternoon near the Long Ford Spring. Since there was not room right at the spring, the picnic was held down a little path along the river to a cleared place. All that came saw people whom they had not seen in a while and had a time of fun and laughter. The little children would play games like drop the handkerchief or wade in the water. Older boys would go swimming, but teenage girls usually just waded because there weren't any swimsuits then. Parents would sit around talking and taking walks along the shady path by the river and up through the ravine to the lovely big spring where the water bubbled out over the moss covered rocks and spilled down the short way to the river.

There were literally thousands such springs in the Ozarks. The spring-sink-hole-cave system is unique and one way or the other all springs are special. They are one of the most unusual and precious of our natural resources.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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