By Norris Chambers

             Old country folks that didn’t have a creek or a well usually had one or more dirt tanks. Tanks were sometimes called pools, ponds, watering holes, stock tanks or some other name that indicated a source of water for the livestock. Sometimes the family had to depend on the tank for their own water. In most cases the cistern provided enough water for household use but during a long dry spell its contents could be exhausted.

            There were many sizes of dirt tanks. The size depended on the area where it was dug or the ambition of the digger. The first thing to consider in digging a tank was the water source. This was some sort of gulley where water gathered and ran in a small stream toward a larger outlet. The second step was to start moving dirt from the small ditch and building a dam across it downstream from the excavation. Dirt was usually moved by means of a small scraper pulled by two horses. The scraper was about three feet wide and resembled a large wheelbarrow bed with the front end of the bed removed and the bottom sharpened. Two wooden handles protruded from he back. These handles were raised by the operator when the scraper was in motion and the sharp point scooped dirt into the body. When released the load of dirt was pulled smoothly to the dumping area. The operator then raised the handles until the scraper turned upside down, depositing the load. The horses then dragged the device around for another load.

            In most cases it was necessary to plow the area to be excavated to make it loose enough for the scraper to load it. Each plowing and scraping made the future tank a little deeper and the dam a little higher. This process continued until the tank was as deep and large as desired. A very important finishing step was to provide a run-around or overflow path for the water when the hole was full. If this escape route were not provided the water would continue to rise and would probably run over the dam and destroy it. When the man digging the tank thought it was large and deep enough he added the spillway and was ready for a rain!

            Many larger tanks were stocked with fish. This was usually done by seining a creek or another tank and dumping the desired fish in their new home. The tank collected enough bugs, worms and other small organisms for a start and soon there were minnows and crawfish to provide plenty of food for the new residents.

            Clifton and I fished in the tanks using several methods, depending on how much time we had and how soon we needed fish. The slow leisure way was to use a pole and bait a hook and wait for a bite. This conventional method worked most of the time. If we just wanted fish the next day we tied one end of a trotline to a stake on one side and after baiting the hooks we secured it on the opposite side. No boat was needed for this type of trotline fishing and it wasn’t necessary to get in the water. An overnight fishing provided a nice fish harvest the next day. If we were in an extreme hurry to fill our fish sack we used a long seine. Clifton held it on one side of the tank and I carried the other end around to the opposite side, holding it out of the water. We then let it sink and pulled it slowly to the side. If we didn’t get as many fish as we needed we repeated the operation on the other side.

            Another method that worked only after a large rain was to wade through the overflow area of the tank and pick up the fish that had been caught in the overflow and left flopping in the grass. We also gathered the smaller outcasts and put them back in the tank to grow. Of course there were frogs, turtles, tadpoles and even a snake now and then. We were not too particular about saving the snakes but we raked up the other little characters and put them back in their home.

            Was building and fishing in the dirt tanks a lot of fun? I recall one rather funny incident when we were fishing the spillway after a large rain. Clifton and I and one of his younger brothers were about through with the clean-up. We had saved enough fish for a super fish fry and were cleaning up the smaller creatures.

            I don’t know exactly how it happened but we were startled by an unhappy exclamation from Clifton. I looked about and saw that a very large turtle had his beak firmly around one of his toes. He had bent over and was using both hands in an effort to remove the attacker. “Get a knife,” he shouted, “Cut his head off!”

            I reached in my pocket for my knife but after feeling some matches I got another idea. I brought out a match, lighted it quickly and held it to the turtle’s left rear leg. There was a quick reaction. The big turtle released his toe and headed at full speed for the tank.

            We had always heard that a snapping turtle would not release its victim until it thundered. As Clifton was examining his bloody toe I consoled him by saying, “We could have waited until it thunders!”