[Note: Hill Country is a column from the Monroe Journal, Amory, Mississippi. My articles appear there every other week. After the column appears in MOJO it is then published here on the blog. I am happy to be writing in the newspaper of the Hill Country, the Monroe Journal. Below is the column from April 21, 2010.]
DIGGING FOR WATER IN THE HILL COUNTRY
by Terry Thornton
Water is such a necessity for living that early settlers of Monroe County chose to live by running streams or freely flowing springs. As the population grew and the demand for more space sent farmers into the hills, a source of water became a primary consideration. Without springs or streams nearby, they resorted to digging wells for a water supply.
Digging wells was a tricky process in that a person was not always successful in finding an adequate source of water. Some folks resorted to water dowsers (or a water witch) to tell them where to place their wells --- and this time-honored folk tradition is still widely believed.
The fact is, however, that almost anywhere a person digs in the Hill County of Monroe County (if he digs deep enough) he will hit water before he hits bedrock. Earlier when the water tables were higher, most family water wells were shallow --- 20 to 30 feet deep. The water well, for instance, on property I once owed in Amory (the May House next door to the old National Guard Armory), was only about 20 feet deep and had a major supply of cold water. Not once did I pump the well dry during the twenty-plus years I owned that site.
At Parham on the hill where I grew up, the water well was deeper and not nearly as dependable. It was about 40 feet deep and every few years the well diggers would come and dig it deeper. On the hilltop home site of my grandparents at Weaver's Creek, the water well was a never-dependable 60 feet deep. And over in Calhoun County where shallow water wells are usually not possible, some of my maternal Hollingsworth family used a brick-lined cistern and captured water off the roof of the house for drinking. A fish was kept in the cistern to keep the water clean.
All of the wells I knew about in Monroe County were dug by hand. A small group of men who lived near Parham were the regular well diggers --- and for a nominal fee, they would dig a well. Those men whose names I've forgotten always had interesting things to talk about. The most fascinating to me was their claim that when they looked up from the bottom of a deep well the sky appeared full of stars as if it were midnight --- and as a child I always dreamed of getting to the bottom of a well at noon to determine if indeed that was fact. (It is --- but I'm not been to the bottom of a well yet.)
Another of their interesting stories concerned the danger of natural gas accumulating in a well they were digging. Often they would stop at Thornton Store in Parham and tell about one of them passing out and how they had to haul him out of the well and revive him in fresh air. This danger was why the digger often worked with a rope tied around his waist --- if he passed out or stopped talking, his coworkers on the surface would haul him out.
But the greatest danger they talked was the dirt wall of a well shaft caving in and burying someone. Most established wells were lined with concrete; certainly the bottom of the well shaft was lined with large culvert-shaped concrete tiles.
In earlier days before round concrete well liners were easily obtainable, some folks dugs wells square and lined them with wood. A square shaft into the ground is easier to shore up and line with wood than is a round one.
I'd never heard of a square, hand-dug well in Monroe County until recently. Rigdon Irvin (1780 - 1858) who is buried in Irvin Cemetery near Sipsey Fork, is said to have dug a square well which still exists on his old home place on Sipsey Trail in eastern Monroe County. [Itawamba County historian Bob Franks also reports square wells lined with cypress dating to pioneer days there also.]
Today most water wells are drilled and most families have access to dependable and safe drinking water through local utility companies. The memory of drawing a bucket of water and getting a cold drink with a dipper is fading fast from the Hill Country.
Terry Thornton is a retired college administrator and former Amory Middle School principal who resides in Fulton. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at FaceBook.