Collection Underscores Water Pump's Importance to Early Farms

One collector's basement museum of water pumps is based on function

Bob Emery and some of his biggest pumps.

Bob Emery and some of his biggest pumps. The larger the spout, the higher the capacity. "(Those with a big spout) pumped a bucket of water in a hurry," Bob says.

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People collect things for many reasons. But for Bob Emery, who collects water pumps, the motivation for his collection is, simply, function. 

"In their times, these pumps were really important," he says. "Every farm and every home had one."

The Emery household in rural Carlinville, Ill., is a water pump showcase, starting at the front yard. The family's mailbox is attached to a pump, and a pump is used as a lawn ornament.

Bob, a carpenter, started collecting water pumps about four years ago. He's an avid collector.

"Lots of pumps are in pieces, and I always give away duplicates," he says. "I buy and restore them."

His collection consists of 20 big water pumps and a dozen smaller ones. Most were made during the 1920s. All have been restored and repainted.

The collection is displayed in a basement museum that consists of a work area, study and display area. The piece that started the collection is also the most unusual, Bob says. Manufactured by the Peters company, it has two cylinders. His collection includes pieces made by Blue Star, Wistrand, Hayes Pump and Planter, F.E. Meyers Brothers (Ashland, Ohio), and several Red Jackets.

Different styles of pumps were popular in different parts of the country. The selection available at the local hardware store had a lot to do with it.

"They pushed what they had good luck with," he says.

Differing geography also played a role.

The rocky terrain in Arkansas led to development of a unique model that Bob refers to as an "Arkansas bucket." Because it's difficult to dig a well in that rocky land, early settlers just sank a pipe into the ground. The Arkansas bucket looks like a stove pipe. Dropped into the pipe, the metal tube holds about the equivalent of a traditional bucket.

Bob's oldest pump – a "post pump" – was originally used by pioneers on the prairie. The post pump was made from a hollowed-out post. The pump's handle and spout are made of metal.

Another pump in his collection – a chain pump (or water elevator) – came from Missouri. That pump was used mostly on cisterns, he says. The transfer pump was used to pump water from creeks into steam tractors. Although many early-day threshing machines depended on water wagons, the transfer pump provided an alternative water source.

Several of the pumps in his collection are multi-functional. The upright bar could be hooked to a windmill or a pump jack.

"The windmills would pump the water," he says. "They were engaged by a lever used to pump water into the tank."

Force pumps were used in homes to force water up the pipe connected to the water closet. The "full body" pump is one that doesn't have exposed pipe, like a pump made by the Monitor company, for instance. The smallest pumps in his collection are the pitcher pumps.

Pieces for his collection have not been hard to come by.

"You'd be surprised how many people have given me pumps," he says.

Bob operates in the same vein, giving duplicates to friends and relatives. On one occasion, Bob offered one to a friend visiting from Arkansas.

"He almost beat me down the stairs," Bob says.

Background information, though, has been a bigger challenge.

"I wish I had more information on the pumps," Bob says. "I've got so many hobbies, it's just 'hit or miss.'"

His other hobbies? Indian artifacts, family heirlooms and vintage auto classics (including a 1940 Chrysler he's restoring).

The Emerys live on a 40-acre farm, which provides ample space for another of Bob's collections: tractors. He has nearly a dozen in various stages of restoration. He's been known to borrow a battery from one tractor to use to start another.

"My goal is to be able to start them all at the same time," he said.

The first tractor he ever owned has been passed around his family. Forty years ago, a neighbor gave Bob and his brother, Charles, a 1946 Case VAI. Later, Bob bought out his brother's share of the tractor. But in the 1970s, he traded the Case for an Allis WC. The Allis had its share of problems, he said.

"She was beautiful, but she wouldn't work," he said. "One day, the fan broke and went through the radiator. She was a jinx, I think."

After the fan incident, Bob traded the Allis, buying a replacement tractor sight unseen. When that tractor was delivered, it was the same '46 Case he'd started with. Bob later passed it on to his son, Scott.

As Scott got older, though, he wanted something he could really drive. He passed the Case on to his uncle Charles (remember Bob's brother, who sold his share of the Case years earlier? Same guy.). Scott traded the tractor for a '41 Ford pickup that Bob had owned before selling it to Charles.

Later, after Charles' death about 10 years ago, Bob bought the Case again. This time, though, he's held onto it, and Scott's held onto the Ford pickup.

Whether it's a pump or a tractor, the pieces in Bob's collection hold special meaning for him.

"A lot of the stuff I collect may not mean a lot to someone else," he said, "but everything has a sentimental value attached to it for me." FC 

For more information: Bob Emery, 18624 Rt. 108, Carlinville, IL 62626; (217) 854-2293. 

Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, III.