Water…..Cool, Cool Water

Dad with his teams, 1920’s

In 1925, with his World World I Navy service behind him, our father was beginning to work his own land, thinking about rain and wheat.  He wrote the following to our mother in a letter dated September 14, 1925:

Dear Friend,

Our wheat averaged 12 bushels, so we really had a good crop and everything to be thankful for.  It’s too bad your people didn’t get a little more, because 5 bushels is just about enough for expenses.  We didn’t have enough rain for plowing yet.  At present I am disking, doing some breaking, and other small jobs.  I have a little over 100 acres to plow this fall if it rains, otherwise I will be pretty busy in the spring.

May I have the pleasure of calling on you Sunday afternoon?  This is the reason I am writing so soon; to give you time to answer if you have other plans.  Just be frank about everything.

Our mother’s family had arrived on the prairie in 1910 from Racine, Wisconsin when she was five. Our father’s family arrived in 1907 from Hampton, Nebraska when he was nine.  From the day they arrived, water and its scarcity was a central concern in their daily world.  There were no streams or flowing water on top of the ground: the Missouri River was miles away, inaccessible and useless for irrigating.  There was none underground that was easily accessible: in later years, the typical well was 400 feet deep (or more) and always undrinkable~~sometimes even for the cattle.  And water from the sky? 14″ in a good year would occasionally fall when it was actually needed and beneficial for the small grain crops.

The obvious problem of too little rain on the unbroken sod prairie meant that the issuance of 160 acre homestead parcels being heavily promoted by the railroads faced some heavy going around 1900.  By 1909, this bit of reality was taken into account when Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act which authorized homesteaders to receive twice the land~~320 acres rather than 160.  Surveying of the land had largely been completed by 1870 but even so, anyone with their thinking cap on could be forgiven for not mistaking the eastern Montana or western North Dakota vistas for black Iowa farmland or even thick Nebraska prairie grass.

No, the land agents still needed a little something more to get past sensible Scandinavian immigrants who might resist sinking their lives into dry and treeless prairie that stretched endlessly under The Big Sky which was at least honestly described in the song, “Home on the Range” as a place where “the skies are not cloudy all day.”  As it turned out, the sales and marketing tool that the railroads needed and used had been around since the 1860’s.  The tool was a theory summarized in the phrase The Rain Follows The Plow.  Much later, this theory properly gained recognition as one of the top ten science mistakes of the last 4,000 years or so.

Here’s how The Theory ran:  “The reason there is no rain is because there is no bare dirt.”

“Potential settler, don’t be discouraged! Don’t be disheartened!  Come! Get your 320 acres of homestand land now!”  (Later it was determined by more rational folk that it would actually take about 2,500 acres of this kind of land to live a decent farmer’s life, but never mind….)  “Come!  Bring your single-bottom plow and your horse or two and break up a few acres.  Do that for several years.  If the grasshoppers, drought and storms don’t destroy it, you’ll harvest a fine crop.  Then The Rain Will Follow The Plow!  Here! We have brochures!  Send them to your relatives in Denmark and Norway and Sweden!”

The Danish families who had ended up in Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska after successfully navigating the halls of Ellis Island in the 1890’s may have actually believed that the rain would follow the plow.  Or maybe they had just run out ofoptions.  Whatever the case, between 1895 and 1910 they continued to get on the immigrant railroad cars for one more ride with their plows, their horses, their cow, their household furniture and their trunks to go to sod prarie country so big, it was claimed, that  if you left your little house to go for a walk you were “lost before you took the first step.”

Two miles from our grandfather’s homestead (which is where our Dad began his farming life) in the front yard of the old one room school house there is an artesian well  that yields up the sweetest, clearest, coldest water this side of heaven, and in our growing years there was still only a hand pump on top of that well.  It’s an artesian well in that the water “flows in freely,” far below ground level.  It is not an artesian well in that every drop of water that is going to be used is pumped out by hand.

My older brother whose teen years spanned the 1940’s remembered bringing water from that faithful well on a stoneboat pulled through the dirt by a team of horses. (Photo illustrates a small stoneboat, which just slid right on the ground) He described the water in eastern Montana as precious to begin with, and then “…the more it was handled the more valued it became.  We first pumped the water out of the well, hauled it home and dumped it in a cistern, then pumped it back out and carried it into the kitchen for Mother, or in for bathing and washing, and then we carried what remained afterwards to the garden or to the pigs.”

After electricity and running water were available in the 1950’s, my memory of how precious the water was revolves around  the anxious tightening of my stomach when town visitors, accustomed to municipal water systems, would use the bathroom and run the sink water for handwashing way too long. As the pressure pump in the basement kicked in again and again, drawing water into the house from the cisterns, I’d have butterflies flying in formation~~wondering why on earth those good people didn’t have enough sense to use less water.

Dad had a 400 gallon tank that would be positioned in the back of our 1950’s Ford  truck.  In our early teens my brother and I frequently had the summertime task of getting water for the two cisterns located out the back door, one right closeand the other 20 feet or so across the yard~~that one with a heavy cover weighted down with big stones.  That second one was big: about 12-15 feet deep and about six feet across.  It was always scary to look down into the water of that one, knowing if I fell in I would never be able to get out.  When the task is given, we make as many trips as it takes to fill the two cisterns.


The low prairie hills and fields stretch away in all directions from that abandoned school yard.  With some sandwiches, an apple and a jar of koolaid, we settle into our task with sweet sights, sounds and smells all around: the buzz of bees in the Indian Paintbrush along the old schoolhouse door, a butterfly or two, the song of meadowlarks, the nuisance of grasshoppers and some sweet clover blooming in the ditches that can be stripped off the stalk between our fingers with a zzzziiiipppppp~~sound, and the steady splash…splash…splash with each push of the pump handle.  100 times for me and 150 for my brother: push, up-‘n-down, push, up-‘n-down, push, up-‘n-down….until we have pumped 400 gallons for each trip.  In between our turns, we sit in the shade on the running board of the truck eating our lunch or whistling through a blade of grass carefully lined up between our thumbs.

This entry was posted in Denmark, Immanuel Larsen's Courtship Letters: See Letters to Rosebud, Mailboxes and Old Barns Essays, The Farm. Bookmark the permalink.

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