Better get crackin’

It can be easy to take water for granted. Here in the eastern U.S. it’s everywhere — from springs to the creeks to the rivers to the lakes to the oceans, white with foam. However, there are places on the planet where most folks have never seen 10 gallons of water all in one place.

At home we are occasionally reminded of the importance of water whenever the electric power goes out rendering our submersible pump inoperative. We have excellent water which keeps indefinitely so about a dozen gallon jugs are stored for just such an occasion. Flushing water is available from the North River, which flows past our backyard and, in season, is suitable — even pleasurable — for bathing as well. So we’re really not in such bad shape during these water emergencies.

At my rural New Jersey home place, water came from a shallow well pump and galvanized steel pressure tank in the basement. The pump sang a high opera diva note when it ran. The pump drew from a well pounded in 1954 through the red shale and granite. A lively little creek ran through the property but saw only recreational use such as swimming and crayfish catching and uncles building dams with the old Oliver dozer.

Nearby, at my grandparents’ farm, the windmill had already been replaced with an electric pump and pressure tank set on a platform with a pipe reaching down into a Revolutionary era hand-dug well. The platform was set in a 6-foot deep cement walled pit to keep the tank below frost. The pit was covered by a shingled roof whose eaves were a mere foot above ground level. Of course, a roof so low to the ground attracted children who were anxious to clamor over it, though doing so could result in a boy having a switch cut in his honor.

I can remember when many of the farms in the area still had operational windmills that pumped the farm’s water from wells into an elevated wooden tank and was then distributed around the farm by gravity — all for free. (Would that even be legal today?) As I understand, the aquifer has steadily been dropping (scary, isn’t it?) in most areas and has long been out of reach of the old shallow well windmill pumps.

I have often wondered what kept those wooden tanks from freezing and bursting in subzero winter temperatures. Likewise the many similar though larger wooden tanks atop buildings in New York City also would seem susceptible to freezing. I guess I could simply ask. At last report, the company that builds these tanks — a long-standing family operation — is still in business.

More free water situations come to mind. At the corner of U.S. 50 and Smokey Hollow road, just east of Capon Bridge, is what remains of what I’ve heard referred to as Hook’s Tavern or “the old Shoemaker place.” (Was Hook perhaps a shoemaker?) The barns and outbuildings have all been demolished and only the house now remains. In all likelihood the house is on town water these days but back in the farm’s heyday water was supplied from a spring on the opposite side of Bear Garden Mountain.

The spring was surrounded by a stone water tank whose elevation was a little higher than that of the farm. Using the simple siphon principle, a buried pipe brought the water over the mountain to the farm. This arrangement sounds ingenious, but it wouldn’t take too many trips over the mountain with an oaken bucket to get one thinking.

I once had the privilege of spending a week at the Dunham Farm near Columbia Crossroads in far northern Pennsylvania. This place also hosted the likes of homesteading gurus Helen and Scott Nearing and other notable writers associated with the rustic arts. The farm’s water came from a spring high in a hillside pasture and was gravity fed to the house and barns.

By 1978, I had read about hydraulic ram pumps in Mother Earth News but was inclined not to believe that a pump could run from the weight of the water that it moved. I got to see the real thing that year at the Baker property on Capon River Road, just south of Capon Bridge. When I worked for the Bakers my immediate supervisor, Vaughn Keiter, and I were sent to the farm to feed the cows and to look things over in general. Vaughn opened the door to the springhouse and there it was — supplying water to the farm and a community of vacation cabins, pumping away with no visible source of power.

At Baker’s tractor shop it was quite a common occurrence for older folks to stop by and ask directions to the pump house to see the same old hydraulic ram pump that their fathers had shown them 40 years ago, still faithfully pumping. For reasons not clear to me the hydraulic ram pump was replaced with an electric unit. Perhaps the spring dropped below where the pump could reach. When I last saw the late Burzie Baker, he said that the old pump was being stored “under the house.” (I would here like to make an inquiry of the Baker family about my possible acquisition of this old pump for both practical and sentimental reasons.)

Think of windmills, hydraulic rams, water wheels, canals, Laodicean aqueducts, artesian wells, old hand-dug wells with mossy oaken buckets (well, it’s been awhile). We all can easily appreciate the beauty of a lake, river, creek or spring. But water, cool and sparkling even when harnessed and channeled by man, loses but little of its aesthetic appeal.

It’s a weekday and I’ve had to vary my routine because of a plumbing emergency at home — hence, I guess, all the thoughts on water. I’m writing this in the morning over coffee before crawling under the house to address the problem. Like many of our neighbors, we do all our own home repairs and all but the most specialized automotive work and so-forth. We wear a lot of hats. Well, if I’m to be a plumber today, I had better get crackin’.


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