The Old Well House

The well house had originally been a barn at one of the rural schools north of us, before it was moved and re-purposed. As I will explain, it eventually enclosed a new water storage tank that was supplied by a new well and windmill that Daddy put in after he moved to the farm from Kansas. At the bottom of the water storage tank was a separate little room with an electric pump and an electric heater. The water from that enclosed storage tank was, as I will explain later, pumped into our house. 

Our well house was the small building between the farmhouse and the red barn. Water from the well was pumped into a large storage tank inside the well house, and from there it was sent into our family’s house or into the water tank for the livestock.  

Originally, when we moved into the farm there was just one old windmill, and it was not very good, so Daddy had Cecil Bogart drill a new well just north of the original well.  They drilled down about 60 feet and found the water table that the original well used.  But it was not of very good quality, so Daddy had them dig deeper.  There was a rock layer that caused them quite a bit of trouble to get though.  Finally they did it, and they continued and found another water table below that.  It was in a sandy strata, which meant there was a good flow of water.  It had cold crystal clear water, so Daddy had them continue digging and he had them stop about 60 feet below the original well.  He had a new metallic wind mill manufactured by Dempster in Beatrice, Nebraska, installed which supplied water for our early years. 

The windmill had a very distinct comforting sound to my tender young ears.  I can still hear it when I think back, and I still really like places that have the old windmills operating.  But eventually, Daddy  replaced the windmill with a submersible electrical pump.  That was never as good as my old beloved windmill!  Well maybe, because there was no going out to look in the big old spooky water tank to see how low it was when the wind had not blown for a long periods of time.  No climbing up on the tower to grease and repair the gearbox, and no pulling the pump rod to replace the leather seals in the pump cylinder at the bottom of the well.

Daddy had the ladder removed from the lower section of the tower.  He was afraid that Kenny and I would be climbing all over the tower, and having no ladder worked when we were young.  Not so much though when we grew taller and could reach the bottom rung of the remaining ladder.  But by then we were older.  I never got comfortable climbing around the platform to work on the engine, however, Ken had no problems.

There was a story that was often told when I was young, and although I’m not sure if it is true, here it is…  There was a young man who  was working on a windmill, and he was leaning his head back, looking up at the windmill mechanism above his head.  Some clouds came scuttling by, and he was overcome with vertigo. As  anyone would, when he looked up at the moving clouds, his mind was tricked into thinking the windmill was tipping over. So he jumped off the windmill, and he died from his injuries. 

My parents also worried that if we climbed up on the windmill and had not set the brake, the slightest wind would cause the windmill to start turning, possibly injuring whoever was nearby. Also, any change in wind direction would cause the windmill to swing around and would knock anyone on the platform off. It would be a thirty foot fall to the ground. Also, in severe weather, even when the brake lock was on, the windmill was extremely noisy. And it was much noisier when the brake lock was off! 

In the northwestern corner of the well house there was a large water tank that went almost all the way to the ceiling. About two-thirds of the way up the side of the tank was a pipe that drained excess water into the stock tank. Tucked in on the southern side was a small pump room, which was heavily insulated so that the pumped water would not freeze, although in winter there was often ice in the water storage tank. In the early years on the farm we would go out on bitterly cold days (-20 degrees Fahrenheit or so) and we would pack extra fiberglass insulation into the pump room when we could not get running water in our old farmhouse because the pump, or the pipes, had frozen. Eventually we got it thoroughly insulated!

Gary standing in front of the well house.
Gary standing in front of tall hollyhocks that grew in front of the well house.

Originally there were four tubs for washing clothes in the well house, although later the clothes washing was moved into the farmhouse. (One tub had a wringer, and Mommy was always afraid that we kids would get our fingers into it. Grandma Santala had a mangled finger from having it caught in a wringer when she was young. Keeping the washing equipment away from very small people was important in the first years on the farm.) 

The water from the laundry tubs drained onto the floor of the well house, which was slanted towards the Southwest, and it went out into the yard, where hollyhocks grew in the damp soil all summer. I always thought they were very pretty, and smelled nice. The only trouble was that the bees liked the flowers, too. I was very careful not to get stung!

Originally, to get the hot water that was used at the well house for our showers after working, Daddy put a 50 gallon drum on the roof of the well house, and spread pitch black tar over the drum barrel. A hole was drilled in the roof and a short length of garden hose was attached to the bottom of the drum and threaded though the roof. Under the roof inside the well house a spray nozzle was installed and a pair of vice grips was used to pinch the hose, thus stopping the flow of water when needed. Daddy and Kenny and I often used this water to clean up after working outdoors in summer weather. The last person who took a shower had to remember to fill up the drum again.  That meant stopping at the water faucet outside the well house, attaching the hose that ran up to the tank, and turning on the water until the tank was full. During the day, the sun would warm the water.  

As I said, at the end of a day’s work on the farm we could use the warm water for a quick shower in good weather. However, when there were three of us (Daddy, Kenny and I) working outdoors, 50 gallons of water wasn’t really enough to get us very clean.  And on cool or cloudy days the water would not get very warm.   

As an aside, my most vivid memory of using the well house shower was one day when I was in high school. I had been working late and it was pitch black.  I showered and I was heading into the house, and of course I took my usual route, which was across the top of the root cellar next to the house.  As I crossed the cellar in my bare feet, I stepped on something that was soft and squishy and also felt cylindrical.   

Immediately, my mind came to the conclusion that I had stepped on a snake — PERHAPS A RATTLESNAKE! I jumped about ten feet in the air, and got into the house in record time.  Kenny and I returned to the spot moments later with a flashlight and tried to find the snake, but whatever it was had gone. 

Of course the hot water tank on the roof and the outdoor shower was very simple, but it was only a start. Later on, we installed a gas water heater and a regular shower stall to clean up after work. (There was also a gas water heater in the family house, so we had hot water in the kitchen and the bathroom, but Mommy did not want us bringing our working dirt, dust and mud into her clean house.)

The well house was also used for storing things that required a cleaner environment than most of the other buildings around the farm (although the well house was not as clean as our farm house). For example: the milking supplies and the cream separator, the veterinary supplies, the gardening supplies, and other similar items were kept in the well house.

I still remember an incident with an early hand powered cream separator, probably the Sears Bradley brand, which was lying abandoned near the well house after we had replaced it with an electric one. The separator was about the same height as Kenny and I were at that time, and it had a large crank and a dozen precise gears to control the rotation rate of the disks in the separator. Kenny and I were curious souls, and we loved to turn the crank, wanting to see how fast we could get things moving. We loved to observe all the gears meshing as they turned. One time Kenny had the separator going very fast, and I was pointing something out, I happened to get my pointer finger too close to a gear, and my finger was drawn into the mechanism. It was quite a shock. Blood went everywhere, and my poor finger stopped all the gears dead in their tracks. I had a bad scar on my finger for years after that, but it did not stop me from wanting to learn how mechanisms of all kinds work, even now!

As an aside, before the R.E.A. (Rural Electrification Association, a United States government project started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt) came in, we had electricity from our own gas-fueled generator in the well house. I just barely remember Daddy and one of the uncles working on it, with all sorts of fascinating copper bolts and screws that I was forbidden to play with. They quickly chased me away—they didn’t want my little fingers touching anything! The R.E.A. came to our farm shortly after that. I was about three years old at that time. 

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