“The Well’s Run Dry!”
I often wonder what went through our Mother’s mind, when Dad informed her that there was no indoor plumbing in the farmhouse, on the Third Line of Bathurst, where they would be living, after the war.
They purchased the farm from Dad’s aunt and uncle, partly with the help of a Veteran’s Grant, in 1946, when Dad returned from overseas. With two babies in diapers, I can’t imagine that my Mother was very happy at the prospect of drawing water from a well, with a hand-pump, a hundred yards from the house. There was a big cement cistern in the basement as well, which collected rain water, but that was just for washing, not drinking.
Water was often in short supply, and almost every year by summer’s end, the well was running dry. When Dad worked for Chaplin’s Dairy, in Glen Tay, he brought water home from the dairy at night, in big metal milk cans, to hold us over, for a while.
Drilling a well was an expensive project to undertake. People paid by the foot, and we’d all heard the horror stories about a neighbour or acquaintance, who had paid for drilling but had not ‘hit’ water in the process.
I’m not sure if it’s still done, but the practice in those days, back in the 1950s and 1960s, was to hire a ‘Switcher’, or ‘Diviner’, who would walk the property, and use a method called ‘Dowsing’. In fact, this was such a common practice at the time that I recall this technique being called by a few different names: Witching, Switching, and Divining, depending on who you were talking to.
Edgar Hamm calls it ‘Witching’, but some call it ‘Dowsing
In many cases, a drilling company either had someone on staff, or knew a person with this skill, and brought them along to assist in finding the best spot to drill, where the water was closest to the surface.
The Thompson brothers, Jerry and Connie drilled our well, although I don’t recall who they hired to walk the land with the willow branch to detect the water.
“I remember when a new well was drilled, and when the men came with the dowsing stick. I can’t recall when they called it – I think a divining stick or rod, but it was used to find water.
I was there, and asked if I could try it. The men seemed amused, but he told me what to do. I can’t remember if I felt anything or not, but when he found the water, it seemed to pull him and the stick almost down to the ground.”
Jackie Stafford Wharton
I recall in those days they used a willow branch, and fashioned it so that it had two short ends, and one long end. Willow was used, because it was supposed to create the strongest ‘pull’ to the water. I’ve also heard that peach branches, or hazel branches conduct water in the same way.
The divining rod: A history of water witching, with a bibliography Water Supply Paper 416 (1917)
The practice of dowsing, goes back to the 15th century in Europe, where it was used not only to find water, but to detect metals as well.
Divining Rod, 18th century Britain
Dowsing or Witching was used extensively during the building of the railroad, to find drinking water for the crew, along the route.
Farmers have used water-witching for generations, to determine the best place to dig their wells, and to find a source of drinking water for their cattle in a pasture.
George Casely uses a hazel branch to find water on his farm, 1942
The practice continues to be used today, in some cities in Canada. Metal rods are used instead of the old-fashioned tree branches.
“The city (Ottawa) says it still routinely uses the age-old detection technique, also known as dowsing or water witching.
“Definitely the other technology works more consistently,” said Quentin Levesque, manager of what’s known as the city’s “locates group.”
“Should they have difficulties or troubles using the other equipment, the divining rod is there as well.”
The practice involves walking slowly over an area while holding one of the L-shaped rods in each hand. When the two rods cross, that’s supposed to signify the diviner is standing over water.”
Some Call it ‘A Gift’
Can anyone use divining rods, or a willow switch to find water?
Some say it is a gift, and only those with this natural, intuitive, sensing ability can detect water. Some say that it doesn’t necessarily pass from father to son, or down through the family.
Some people claim that dowsing is a psychic ability, and some scoff and say that it is a learned ability, and that anyone can be trained to do it.
Whether it’s a gift, or something that can be learned, it’s still being practiced today by some, to pinpoint sources of water.
Were my parents happy when the well-witcher located the water in our yard, and the Thompson brothers drilled our well? They sure were!
Was it mystical or magical or other-worldly, when our Mother turned on the tap in the old house, and drinking water gushed out for the first time?
I’m sure to her, it was.
Audry (Rutherford) Stafford, in front of the old house, c. 1965
story is an excerpt from “The Well’s Run Dry”, in ‘Recipes & Recollections: Treats and Tales from our Mother’s Kitchen, ISBN 978-0-9877026-0-9