Woster: Carrying that magical water through history

By that measure, our well pumped tolerable water. It was no joy to drink, but we could do it.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

These days the Missouri River is my idea of water, but as a farm kid, I thought water came from rain or the foul-smelling artesian well on our place.

I recalled that well recently when our great-granddaughter, going on 3, talked with her grandma about how magical water could be. They were at a window gazing at the river.

Water, the child said, can be used for tea. That made sense. I had just brewed her a cup of decaffeinated tea with a splash of honey for her cough.

Water, she continued, makes puddles. An overnight rain had left pools of standing water on our gravel road. And water makes rivers, she added. True enough. That takes a lot of water, but it can happen.

Indeed, water is magical. I found the Missouri fascinating when I was a kid. It spread across the wide valley in wet times, and it dried to a brown, slow-moving snake in dry years. It could rage in flood or barely flow at all before the dams blocked its natural flow. If you are too young for Medicare, you probably don’t remember when the river ran free.


The river fascinated me, yes, but I seldom visited it back on the farm. The bluffs and breaks were a few miles east, but they might as well have been in New England. We didn’t just up and go there.

Day-to-day, my ideas about water came mostly from that artesian well. That’s how it was for many farm families in the land between the Missouri and the Black Hills. That’s how it was for town folks out that way, too. Water was anything you could stand to drink.

By that measure, our well pumped tolerable water. It was no joy to drink, but we could do it. The stuff coated the sides of the stock tank with a rust-colored crust, and it rotted the pipes often enough that we had to pull them from the ground and replace them with pipe we knew would soon rust, too.

But we could drink the water. Some neighbors almost would have rather gone thirsty. One family I remember mixed their water with Kool-Aid and sugar. That sounds tastier than it was.

I gathered many artesian water stories a few years ago when I researched the history of the West River/Lyman-Jones Rural Water System. That project brought Missouri River water to farms, ranches and towns across a vast swath of west-river South Dakota. River water finally came to my old land. It came way too late for me to benefit from it, but I feel good knowing some old neighbors and their offspring have dependable, good-quality water.

During my research, I heard stories from several old-timers about cleaning cisterns. I got a kick out of those tales. Pretty much every farm kid in my day had done that chore. It was a miserable one. It wasn’t really that physically taxing, although emptying the last of the water by lifting it a bucket at a time on a rope was unpleasant.

No, the worst part was crawling into the cistern to scrub down the concrete walls and floor. I am claustrophobic, and the place was a tomb — dark, dank and full of unsavory little critters. If you wonder how we drank from that cistern knowing what was down there, I guess we had no choice so we ignored the creepy-crawlies.

Some people told of encountering salamanders in their cisterns. I ran into a couple of tiny snakes but never a lizard. Good thing, too. I’m pretty sure I’d have hightailed it up the ladder and run off with a passing circus.


Someone, probably Dad, arranged a collection system to catch rain water from the eaves of the house and run it through a covered tub filled with chunks of what I guess was charcoal. The filtered rain water then ran into the cistern. Great in theory, but I once opened the tub and found a dead sparrow lying on the charcoal. I still drank the water. What are you going to do, right?

Our great-granddaughter will never have such experiences, and I can’t say she is missing a thing.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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