Irrigating, Old Style: The Skinner System

Firsthand

Skinner overhead irrigation system in field

Skinner overhead irrigation systems use 1-inch or 3/4-inch pipe with nozzles every 3 feet. The Skinner system was patented by Charles Skinner of Ohio in 1894. The company appears to have ceased production in 1976.

Frank Roesch

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Born and raised in south Jersey (the Garden State) near Atlantic City, my uncles and cousins were all farmers. They used the Skinner irrigation system.

That type of watering used pipes with nozzles supported on wooden poles with an oscillator at the supply end. Most crops could be watered using this method.

However, the poles did have their disadvantages. Weeds flourished where the nozzles dripped. My uncle planted dill in the pole rows and plowed next to the poles by hand. Many radish, spinach, parsley and pickle crops were grown with that type of watering. A gentle breeze helped disperse the streams that left the nozzles.

Water was pumped from wells using various pumps. My uncle’s pump was a Myers 6-by-6. Made in Ashland, Ohio, it had a 6-inch bore and 6-inch stroke. It looked like a monster with its air chambers, but never missed a clunk when it was operating. A ladle hung nearby for those lucky enough to get a taste of that cold water when the pump was working.

One day in 1961, while I was working for my uncle, the pump was feeding about six lines with lots of mist and much pounding of the pump. All of a sudden, no water, no thumping, no nothing. My uncle knew what had happened. “Frank, go pull the switch,” he said calmly. I did and there lay three belts off the pulleys. Too much pressure!

The Skinner setup had 1-inch or 3/4-inch pipe with nozzles every 3 feet. Holes were drilled and tapped by hand. Guides (or just two nails) kept the pipes from rolling off the poles. Length of runs varied as needed up to 200 feet. Whenever the oscillator (which was adjustable 0 to 190 degrees) malfunctioned, it was because of a problem with the leathers on a little device that clicked back and forth as the pipe rotated.

You could also purchase larger pipe with nozzles and thumb-screw connectors. This setup usually had 2-inch pipe that lay on the ground. It was portable, but not much good when used on tall crops.

When I moved to Wisconsin, little did I ever think there would be two Skinner systems. A local farmer mentioned that he had some new parts for a Skinner irrigation system. Before his retirement auction he sold me two new oscillators. That’s when I learned there was a C.W. Skinner, Newfield, N.J., and Skinner Irrigation Co., Troy, Ohio. Maybe they were related.

I set up the system each year on my small farm, mostly for conversation and reminiscing. FC