Water Cisterns Made Farm Life Possible in Texas Panhandle

It's All Trew

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A good cistern meant the difference between surviving on one’s chosen land and having to leave it to find a better water source.

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Talk about old times with almost any senior citizen of the Texas Panhandle and you will hear stories about cisterns – those crude, hand-dug, underground reservoirs that held the precious drinking water on almost every farm.

In this country, a good cistern meant the difference between surviving on one’s chosen land and having to leave it to find a better water source.

Before windmills were introduced in the area, drinking water had to be hauled on sleds or wagons across rough prairie from the nearest source. The water was put in barrels with gunnysacks tied over the tops, and many gallons sloshed into the soil in transit.

After living quarters progressed from dirt-roof dugouts to frame houses with shingled roofs, settlers captured the natural runoff of rainwater from the roofs.

Gutters directed the water into barrels placed below the gutters’ spouts, but when the barrels filled up, overflow ran onto the prairie again.

To save that overflow, settlers began to build cisterns, which were filled by lowering down buckets of water by rope. Hand pumps were utilized to bring the stored water back to the surface.

A family’s pride, character and material resources were represented by the quality of its cistern. Some were merely crude holes in the ground with wooden boards covering the top opening. If rock was available, the walls might be lined and a rock top constructed for safety and cleanliness.

If the soil of the cistern walls was firm, nails could be driven into the dirt, chicken wire hung on the nails and covered with Portland cement, making for a tight, clean reservoir that could be kept clear and sanitary.

Not all Panhandle land was blessed with good water, so even after well-drilling equipment became available, it didn’t help everyone. Much of the water in the southeastern region, for example, contains the mineral gypsum in such large quantities that humans cannot endure the taste.

Babe Brown is a long-time resident of a Collingsworth County, Texas, farm with “gyp” water. She recalls that her family’s cistern was 20 feet deep and lined with stucco and that her father diverted all the roof water through a container filled with charcoal, which acted as a filter, before it went into the underground storage unit.

She also recalls that in winter, each time a “clean snow” fell, the family spent the next day scooping the snow into buckets and tubs and dumping it into the cistern; the melted snow made the coldest, best-tasting water in the gyp-water community.

My favorite cistern stories are about hard-working Plains people who would spend a hot day chopping wood, picking cotton, riding hard on roundups and branding cattle, or maybe digging postholes. Arriving home at the end of the day, they would draw up a cool, refreshing bucket of water from their cisterns to quench their thirsts.

A couple of dippers of the cool water down a parched throat, and another atop the head, made the long, hot day a little shorter and more endurable. Sometimes just thinking about all that cool, clear water down in the cistern kept a body going until quitting time. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trew-blue@centramedia.net.