Carrying water to house way of life

Published 8:35 am Saturday, June 9, 2012

by James D. “Archie” Howell

In our backyard, about a 100 feet slightly downhill from our back door is our water well.

About a 100 feet from our back door downhill in another direction is our outhouse. It’s about 100 feet diagonally between the well and the outhouse.

In the early 1900s, communicable diseases ravaged urban and rural populations alike. Diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases killed thousands.

Visiting nurses were sent into the countryside to educate residents about basic sanitation, relational distances between wells and outhouses, and better care for the sick. Deaths from disease decreased dramatically.

Our well is fairly typical — about four feet in diameter. It’s bricked up about four feet above ground and three below. It has a cover of boards fitted together and cut round to cover the entire well opening.

On one side a hole through the cover serves as a mount for the pump. The pump has a curved handle arranged on a pivot with a plunger extending from the short end through the top of the pump housing.

A spout is cast at the top of the housing. Inside is an upper chamber where the movable pump valve is located. The valve is a circular device with a floating disk and leather washer. It’s a one-way valve.

The lower part of the chamber contains another one-way valve mounted atop a pipe extending to the water below. Pumping action draws water from the reservoir to the upper chamber. Water is trapped there and, with another stroke of the pump, water is raised until it flows out the spout.

The same action has been used to pump water since pumps were first invented. It usually requires priming to get the water started and a container of water is usually left on top of the well cover as a courtesy to the next user.

All water for cooking, bathing, washing, drinking, or other uses comes from this well. Hot or cold, rain or shine, water is pumped and carried in buckets to wherever it’s required.

My aunt and uncle have a well in their front yard; they also have a pump on their back porch. They either built the porch over another well, or dug the well under the porch.

Either way, I think it’s great that you don’t have far to go for water and you don’t have to go out in nasty weather.

They also have a wood-burning cook stove with a thermometer built right into the oven door. You don’t have to guess about temperature. The stove has a warming shelf that extends from the back out over the cooking surface.

Their outhouse is a two-holer, very modern.

Other water wells are equipped with a pulley arrangement attached to a beam above the cover. These wells have a divided cover — some hinged, some not — to allow a bucket to be lowered and raised.

Still others use a rope wrapped around a spindle that is turned with a crank to raise and lower the bucket; none of my relatives use this type.

Near Walters there’s a very old well. The bricked part is pretty standard, but it has a tall post with a long, strong pole affixed to its top. One end of the long pole has a rope attached. The other is attached to a smaller longish pole, hanging vertically.

That pole is lowered into the well with a bucket attached. Then it’s raised hand over hand, or the rope is pulled to raise the bucket full of water. It seems like a lot more work, but it gets the job done and can be built with wood and rawhide.

Worn parts could be made and replaced on site. Water buckets don’t have to be metal. Metal was expensive and scarce.

Water wells and outhouses are a part of my heritage.

Fresh, clean water flows from bright shiny faucets in my house. Waste water disappears down a shiny drain. Hot water is available on demand, and the temperature can be controlled anywhere between cold and hot at will.

I try to conserve water as a way of life along with other conservation and recycling efforts, but sometimes I just stare at that clean cool stream and marvel about how it got there.

I’m back in our backyard, carrying water from our well to the house. I struggle to change hands with the bucket as it becomes uncomfortable. I can feel the pull of the bucket’s weight and the cool splash of spilled water on my legs. I am home.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at