Some folks make fun of those who profess to have the ability to witch or dowse for water. The fact is that there are a lot of us who can operate a divining rod; be it a peach twig, a piece of welding rod or a pair of big, old wire pliers; and we can almost guarantee that where that old rod points there will be water for a well, if you dig right there.
Uncle Walter was one of those kind of folks who knew how to dowse for water. He wasn’t really our uncle, but MaMa always taught us to respect our elders and address those that were older by either “mister” or “aunt” or “uncle.” When Walter came into our lives, it was just natural that we would call him Uncle Walter.
Now Uncle Walter was a man of many talents. He could catch more fish with a dough hook than most any one I ever saw. He could tie the most beautiful and useful knots in a piece of rope. He could use that old Barlow knife he carried to make the most wonderful things, like beautiful chains with the links all intertwined. He made them from one solid piece of wood too, he did. He taught me a heap of stuff that I would not have learned otherwise for sure. Try as I would though, I was never able to get the knack of whittling that wooden ball inside the box-like framework without bustin’ something.
One of Uncle Walter’s talents that he shared with me was witchin’ for water. Soon after he came to live on Muddy Creek there was a real bad dry spell. It must have been in about 1917. Dad was out selling Liberty Bonds and signing up Red Cross members because of the war effort. It was the year before we had that humdinger of a snow that was so deep all the roads were closed. It was during that dry spell that Uncle Walter was called upon to do a heap of water witchin’.
Now you would think there would be lots of water down there at the foot of Red Hill. That old hill had given birth to a dozen or more running springs that spouted the cleanest and coldest water you could ever imagine. When you got down the road to Muddy Creek, however, those springs sure dried up fast.
I never knew if Dad had witched the big, deep well there on the Piper homestead, but it was a good one: 135 feet deep and it supplied the hardest, coldest water ever for three families, well nigh on to 70 years without falter.
But you go a half-quarter south to the old Pepple place, or a quarter east to the Vanatta farm, and there just ain’t no water there, except a mite of salty brine at the Vanatta farm, and a vile-tasting seepage up at Dollie Pepple’s place. His well would sometimes give you a heck of a boom when you tossed a lighted match into the hole. Both of them asked Uncle Walter to witch them a well. He tried time after time, but he was never able to locate anything like a fair to middlin’ trace on either of those farms. Later on, when the oil craze came on in the late forties, the well logs showed little evidence of water in any holes they punched down.
I remember one time when Uncle Walter took me with him up to Tom Town to witch a well for Oliver Petty. Walter, ‘scuse me! Uncle Walter took me with him partly because there was a Petty boy a mite older than me by the name of Mervin. I knew him since he was a cousin to my cousin Randall and our dads had taken us to the movie show in Summer one time. Now Oliver was living on the old Tom Petty farm just across the road from Tom Camp and Tom Legg. Oliver wanted to get a well because their cistern water was giving out, with all the dry weather we’d been having. He figured if he could get a well, then maybe he could get a job, digging one for his neighbors there in Tom Town.
Uncle Walter used a great big pair of wire pliers for a “devinin’ rod.” He caught them by the handles and twisted them up so that the jaws of those pliers was wide open to the sky and his hands were turned clean over and upside down, aholdin’ the handles in a tight grip.
He walked across the backyard there at the Petty Place and clean out into the barn yard. Then, sure enough, as he crossed the garden-fence corner, those pliers began to pivot and head down. Uncle Walter started to sweat as he tried to hold them twisting pliers, and then, kerplop, they went smack down, in spite of him trying to hold them up. He asked me to mark the spot with a rock, but not tell him where it was. He went off about 100 feet toward the barn. He started walking back and forth, working his way up toward the fence row, and sure enough, them old pliers turned down again, and that time Mervin marked the space.
Uncle Walter walked all over that yard and finally put his foot down on a spot, ground his heel into the ground, and said to Mr. Petty, “Right there is the water. You’ll get a good well by digging right there.”
That spot was right on a line between the spots where Mervin and I were standing, about halfway between us.
Uncle Walter then showed us his hands. The skin was actually blistered up from holding those pliers and trying to keep them from rotating. A couple of weeks later, I went over to the Pettys’ to visit with Dad and MaMa, and sure enough, they’d dug a well where Uncle Walter said. They got a good well too, and I expect they are still using it.
Seems that some people have the knack for witching or dowsing water. I don’t know why it works, but it sure does, at least for me. Many a time since I have used a pair of big, old pliers to spot a likely place for a well, and, like Uncle Walter on that day long ago, I have had the skin on my palms peel and blister from the power of that unknown force twisting the pliers in my hands.
I ain’t askin’ you to believe in witching or dowsing, but I suggest that if you want a mite of insurance when you dig a well, you get yourself an experienced water witcher. You know, just in case there is something to it. FC
The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.