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Every home needs a good well
Now and Then
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Before electricity came to rural regions, water was a concern for country folks. In time, deep wells drilled into the aquifer and equipped with electric pumps provided them with abundant water to meet their many needs, but before that water, a vital necessity, was sometimes in scarce supply.

Today, it is impossible for most people to comprehend what it was like not to have gushing water at fingertip command. Indeed, many cannot imagine what it is like not to have water at all. Like fresh air and sunshine, it is underappreciated.

However, for decades — even centuries — one measure of a flourishing home was that it had “a good well of water,” meaning one that produced that precious liquid in abundance. Some needs are obvious: drinking, cooking, preparing food, washing dishes, bathing. Then, as now, washing clothes required a lot of water to fill the wash pot and a couple of wash tubs. Mules required plenty of drinking water. There were chickens, milk cows and hogs penned up for slaughter. Hog-killing days demanded hundreds of gallons of water. Cleaning up the stickiness after making syrup meant a lot of hot water.

One might think that water could be found anywhere with enough searching and digging, but not so. In some locations, usually near flood plains of streams, a good flow of water could be found only 10-15 feet down. Pictures of “well sweeps” to draw water were from such places. (A well sweep has one long pole as a handle linked by a hinge to another to which a bucket is attached high above the well. This fulcrum took much of the labor out of drawing water.)

Other wells yielded no abundant flow at 50 feet. Water was drawn from deeper wells by “teekles,” a variant of “tackles,” meaning a wheel with deeply-grooved outer rim over which ran a rope or chain. 

Hung by a beam above the well, they allowed the drawer to lower and raise a bucket attached to a rope with more speed and less effort than doing so hand over hand.

Of course, there were other sources of water than wells. Some early settlers built their cabins near free flowing springs. However, springs often are found in lower, wetter places that are home to mosquitoes. Higher ground was preferred and that meant digging wells. 

Still, in times of drought when wells failed, people turned to springs for drinking and cooking water.

Those who readily drank from streams were few. In a time when free-range livestock drank, bathed, wallowed and otherwise befouled streams, drinking water from where they had been or might have been was not appealing.

Truthfully, I have drunk water from Pendleton Creek at eating time while night fishing in the spring. But I only drank it after it had been boiled in a gallon syrup bucket along with a double handful of coffee. I was concerned about how much coffee grounds I was ingesting from that steaming brew, not about whether or not any living organism could have survived in it.

My experiences with wells run the gamut from abundant water to nearly none. Start with the well at the Branch family home place, where Grandmother Branch lived. It always had plenty of water, cool and sweet, in wet season or dry. Plenty of water for syrup making, cane grinding and making sweet tea for multitudes of kin who gathered there almost every Sunday.

The well at the home of my maternal grandparents near Cobbtown was not so reliable. Sometime during the period when we lived there — late 1942-43 — there came a serious drought. Granddaddy Williams tried to dig a supplemental well down beside a pond, but found no water. They had to use precious rationed gasoline (World War II) to haul drinking water from a distant spring. I don’t remember how they got water for washing clothes. Cows and hogs found water in nearby streams.

Then my father bought a farm in Toombs County, less than a mile from where he grew up. Unlike his home place, this one did not have a good well of water. The existing one was deep but had little water. It had a layer of wet sand of undetermined depth, which produced water but caved in from the sides so little accumulated. Someone had tried to shore up the sides with scaffolding but failed. Daddy hauled drinking water in big jugs from the home place and for other purposes in a barrel.

The next year my folks built a new house about 40 yards from the old one and had a well dug nearby. “Mister Splug” was hired to dig it. His compensation — in addition to money — was a daily pint of gin. He dug through foot after foot of clay, which changed color and texture as he went, carving footholds/handholds into the sides. It was perfectly round and straight but encountered no water. 

Deep down, 45 feet or so, he found sand, obviously an ancient seabed because there were sharks' teeth and shells. At 50 feet, he found water and the sand began to cave in around him. He was finished.

Daddy and his brother used the teekle and an automobile to lower sections of culvert (“sewer pipe”) into the well to restrain the sand. Since the main flow was from the side, water had to seep up through the sand at the bottom. It was never deep. One had to be careful in drawing water to avoid stirring up the sand. Mother did not like sand in her cooking water. I was not always careful.

Much later, I learned enough about the region’s geological history to understand the earth dynamics that led to good wells and bad wells less than a mile apart. Electricity came and afterwards a deep well — 550 feet deep — and water to do everything anyone wanted to do. 

That included watering Momma’s flower gardens at will and irrigating a big vegetable garden as needed. Daddy just loved to drink it.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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