Pump Jacks Kept the Water Flowing

When the wind wasn't blowing, pump jacks were the best answer for large water needs before the days of electricity on the farm.

| July 2015

Before electricity came to the farm, providing water for livestock was a perpetual challenge. “If the wind didn’t blow, you had two choices,” says Tom Plier. “You could either pump water by hand, using the pump handle, or you could get a pump jack going on a stationary gas engine. If a cow drinks 30 gallons a day, and if you had a herd of 10 or 20, that gets to be a big job.”

For large volume needs, like water for livestock, windmills were long used as a power source for well pumps. As stationary gas engines became commonplace, they took over the job, eliminating the stockman’s uneasy relationship with wind power. Later still, electric motors powered pump jacks.

In use, two “walking sticks” are attached to the pump stem at the upper part of the pump jack. The bottom part of a stick is attached to each side of the pump jack. Depending on the unit’s design, the walking sticks move up and down or in a circular motion as the pump jack (powered by an external power source, like a gas engine or electric motor) operates.

Collector interest on the upswing

Tom, who lives near Wautoma, west of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, collects pump jacks. “There was a pump jack and water pump on the property when I moved here,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to set it up over the well. It just took off from there.”

Collectors have been slow to warm to pump jacks. “They have not been a very popular item,” Tom says. “But interest is going up tremendously. Three years ago I went to a big swap meet at Baraboo, Wisconsin, and I found four. Last year I found seven there. This year, I got nine. Some of the vendors said they’d never seen so many pump jacks.”

Lost to scrap drives

In the past five years, he’s built a collection of 90 pump jacks representing 30 manufacturers. Today, at least 60 of his pieces are restored and in working condition. He does the restoration work himself, including sandblasting, power washing and painting.