Water! Water! Where's The Water?
by Norris Chambers
For the household that wasn't fortunate enough to be over underground water, there was another alternative. This was called a "cistern". There were several kinds of cisterns, but I will describe the kind we had in the dry area where I grew up. The source of water was what fell on the roof during a rain. Gutters on the house carried the water into a cistern located near the house. Some cisterns were actually inside the house, or at least on the back porch.
The typical cistern was about eight feet in diameter and fifteen or twenty feet deep. About six feet below the surface of the ground, the diameter decreased to about three feet and extended above the surface about three and a half feet. Water from the gutter was carried to the cistern by either an elevated trough or a pipe. A wooden cover fit over the top and was removed for obtaining water.
The water was removed for use by means of a bucket and a rope and pulley. A pole frame above the opening supported the pulley. A few cisterns didn't have the pulley, and only a rope was used to raise the bucket of water. In later years some old codgers used pumps of various types. The wooden cover was removed for drawing the water and replaced after the chore was completed.
Ordinarily cistern water was used only for cooking and drinking. Water for washing, bathing, etc. was carried in buckets from the dirt tank, usually a distance of a hundred yards or more from the house.
A few fancy installations had a concrete box that the gutter emptied into. This box was filled with charcoal and the water drained through it into an underground pipe that opened into the cistern below ground.
Our cistern was built in the middle 1800's and still worked as long as I was on the farm. There were times during a long dry spell when the cistern water would be exhausted. We then had to haul water from a creek or tank and dump into the cistern. For this water transfer we used four 55 gallon barrels in a wagon. The barrels had to be filled by hand. This was not an unpleasant job. Papa drove the horses into the water until the wagon bed was within reaching distance of the water and we filled the barrels with buckets. It was emptied into the cistern the same way. Before water was put in we cleaned the cistern. There was a considerable accumulation of mud in the bottom. This came from the dust that was carried from the roof. If we were home when it rained, we turned the pipe away from the cistern and let most of the first water flow on the ground. But sometimes when we were not home or it rained at night, this wasn't done.
In building a cistern, the first step was to dig a hole about ten feet in diameter and as deep as you wanted the cistern. This was a lot of digging when your digging equipment was a pick or grubbing hoe and a shovel. As you got deeper, you had to remove the dirt with a rope and bucket. When the hole was complete, it was walled with rock and mortar, properly tapered at the top and extended up to a comfortable height. About four to six inches of concrete was poured in the bottom and the walls were plastered with cement all the way to the top and on the outside of the exposed portion. The inlet for water was placed about a foot underground or at ground level.
I recall several interesting incidents relating to our cistern.
We had a young goat that was quite a climber and a jumper. One day he got in the yard and jumped on the cistern. When he hit the board clover, it slid with him and toppled him backwards in the hole. He immediately began broadcasting some real distress sounds.
Papa and I were working close to the house that day, and we heard the pitiful cries coming from the cistern. The echoing and reechoing really sounded weird. We rushed to the rescue and began by trying to rope the kid and pull him out. But there was just the tip of his nose showing, and we didn't have much luck. He was still squalling like a wildcat had him by the leg.
Papa suggested that I climb down the rope and tie it around the goat. It sounded like a good idea, so we fastened one end of the rope to one of the frame posts and I slid down to the bottom. The water wasn't very deep - probably not over three feet. I managed to take the end of the rope and tie it around his body, despite his kicking legs. He had to keep kicking to stay afloat. Papa pulled him up and turned him loose. He ran happily back toward the barn. I tried to climb out, but kept slipping back down the rope. We solved that problem by tying knots in the rope. After that I climbed out easily. We decided the water was not contaminated enough to warrant replacing.
Another time or two we spotted a big rat floating on top of the water. This was unsettling, since we didn't know how long it had been in there before it floated to the top. This required removing all the water and hauling replacement water from the creek. We tried to keep the top covered to prevent this, but sometimes the cover was left open and unwanted guests could enter. Of course we never know how many scorpions, spiders and other bugs made their way into the water and didn't escape. We didn't think much about it as long as the water tasted all right. In emergency situations we boiled water for drinking and cooking.
In later years I rigged a pump and a gasoline engine to pump water from the tank. But we never got electricity and didn't have a pressure pump on the cistern. There is a power line going by the old place now, but no one lives there. The old cistern is still out there in the yard, but kids have thrown rocks and trash in it and just about filled it. Just a few old logs remain of the log portion of the house. The tank has filled with silt and the dam washed out. Our fields are full of mesquite trees, and one would have to look close to find that at one time poor farmers (meaning us) worked out there planting and gathering corn, maize, cotton and even peanuts, Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes.
So, if you have water running out of a faucet, appreciate it and have fun with it even if you get a hefty bill every month. It wasn't always that easy!
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Copyright © 2007 Norris Chambers