Anyone who never grew up on a farm probably doesn’t really appreciate what an incredible thing it was for country people to get rural water.
It was as game-changing as rural electricity. Reviewing a history of rural water development in South Dakota, I’ve been recalling when our farm in eastern Lyman County depended on a deep, artesian well for our water. If you’ve experienced artesian well water, you’ll immediately smell and see and even taste that awful stuff. If you haven’t, I’d struggle for just the right words to make you understand what it was like.
At our farm, the windmill over the well rose into the air from a convenient location near the barn. The nearby stock tank – a cylinder of rust-caked wooden slats high enough for a cow to stretch its neck over and reach the rust-colored water – sat next to the windmill. Our barnyard was laid out so cattle pens on both the west and north sides of the barn had access to the well. When the wind blew, my dad would engage a lever that led to the windmill vanes. I gather that unlocked a gizmo in the hub so the vanes could spin freely and pump water from deep in the ground through discolored pipes to spill into the tank.
The system actually was pretty efficient. It was effective, too, when the wind blew. After REA wired the farm, my dad installed a small motor to power the pump for those times when the wind failed. The artesian water corroded the pipe as it flowed, and every two or three years we laboriously pulled the sections of pipe from the ground and repaired or replaced the pump. I wasn’t trusted to fix the pump, but I got a lot of experience in pulling the pipe out of the ground. We used heavy wrenches to take the sections apart piece by piece. We put them back together when repairs were finished. On a muggy afternoon, that job was as distasteful to me as fixing barbed wire fence all day.
I was still pretty young when we started hauling our drinking water from the plant in Chamberlain. We had a cistern next to the house, a deep, round concrete tube topped by a housing with a crank and spigot. A loop of chain inside the housing held square metal cups that, when the crank was turned, lifted the water from the cistern and spilled it out the spigot. That, too, was pretty efficient and quite effective.
Next to the cistern was a metal tub with a cover. Pieces of a charcoal-like substance filled the tub, and a downspout ran from the eaves trough of the house down into the tub. I gather the charcoal was supposed to filter the rainwater that trickled from the eaves through the tub and into the cistern. I found a dead sparrow atop the charcoal one time, but we didn’t think much of it. It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t drink the water. That’s more than a bit odd when you reflect on it today.
Every now and then –more often than a tall but skinny kid whose body fit easily through the top opening in the cistern would have preferred – we cleaned the inside of that water reservoir. When the water level ran low, one of us would climb down a ladder with a bucket on a rope and some cleaning rags and maybe disinfectant. We’d scoop the last of the water into the bucket lift it from the cistern (along with a frog or worm or – once I recall, some kind of lizard.) Then we’d scrub down the sides and floor of the cistern and we’d be good to go, until the next time. It was sweaty, dirty, wet work, and I didn’t care one bit for the creatures that lurked down there in the dark.
I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a grown-up farm boy or girl of my generation who lived in the western part of the state who doesn’t remember the odious business of cleaning a cistern. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about that chore since I left the farm, but like working cattle or stacking hay or combining grain, it has to be a universal experience for anyone who grew up out where water was scarce and pretty lousy, too.
Actually, fixing fence and pulling pipe weren’t so bad when I recall cleaning the cistern.