Thursday, May 17, 2012

Water on the Prairie

In 1877 not only did the annual rainfall encourage potential settlers with the total amount that fell.  More importantly, the rain was well distributed over the growing season for winter wheat and corn.  Relying on that, many homesteaders decided to stake their claims for a farm on the prairie, and the number of acres claimed at the Larned Land Office, where Isaac filed his homestead claim, jumped from 145,977 acres in 1877 to 246,377 in 1878, the year Isaac arrived.  Unfortunately for the settlers, 1877 rainfall proved to be an unusual year, with subsequent years not only receiving less rainfall but, more significantly, the rains that came were at the wrong times for crops.  By 1880 the prairie was in a drought.  Many settlers gave up and abandoned their claims, and Edwards County lost half of its settlers between 1880 and 1882.  As bad as those years were, however, the 1890s were worse.  Rainfall on the prairie was at best undependable and at worst inadequate to sustain crops year after year.  [Craig Minor, West of Wichita, Chapter 10, "The Weak Shall Flee," University Press of Kansas, 1986]

For those who stayed, dependence on collecting rainfall for domestic and agricultural needs being inadequate, every farm needed a well for their own water and for their stock.  These wells were hand dug, and water was raised by pulley, rope and bucket.  From Isaac's Journal, it appears that wells often had to be cleaned or new ones dug when old ones became fouled or dried up.  In January of 1888, Isaac wrote, "One luxury I feel having about me again, that is plenty of well-water, two wells, cleaned and ready to use for house and stable. 

Isaac owned a windlass, or a sort of winch, and he was often called upon by his neighbors for its use in digging wells.  One man worked at the bottom, digging down to the depth needed to strike water.  Another man remained at ground level to crank the windlass that carried the dirt being removed from the bottom of the hole to the surface, where the dirt was dumped and the bucket or other container was returned to the bottom to be filled again.

Because the soil in the area was generally sandy loam, a curb at the surface was typically necessary to protect against cave-ins.  Even if the well had been dug without installing a curb, one was often needed to keep debris out of the well water.  Isaac mentioned needing a curb for his stable well after heavy rain washed dirt and the kind of material typical around livestock into the well.

A common cause for needing to clean a well, according to Isaac's Journal, was the water becoming "crickety."  Anyone who has battled keeping crickets out of basements and cellars can imagine the challenge of keeping those insects out of an open well.

Isaac mentioned bucketing water to his garden plot and to his young trees, but hand watering the larger fields was impossible.  In some regions, farmers were trying irrigation, but not in Stafford County were Isaac lived.

In October of 1887, an agent for the I.Y.L. Windmill Company stopped by Isaac's homestead for a visit.  Isaac listened with interest to the man's description of the machine, but after being told by the agent that the windmill he recommended for Isaac's farm would cost $240 (a huge amount for those times), Isaac declined.  He was already so far in debt that he believed a windmill was out of the question, even if a lender could have been found from whom to borrow the cost.  However, neighbors Charles Shattuc, the Bentley family, and others gradually acquired windmills.

By 1891 when the journal ends, Isaac was still lacking the financial ability to afford a windmill, although he did acquire a used pump for his well from old neighbor, Jesse Green.  A newspaper ad from the County Capital describes the increase in sales of the "Aermotor Pneumatic Water Supply System," claiming 45 were sold in 1888, with significant annual increases in sales leading to the prediction of 60,000 sales in 1892.  Interestingly, this ad was taken from a newspaper published in 1895, but the ad neither updated the sales numbers through the year of publication nor validated actual sales in 1892.

Many of the early settlers believed that "water follows the plow," in other words, that if they planted trees and broke sod to plant fields, rainfall would increase, and the arid plains would become a land of abundant crops.  After nearly two decades of testing that theory, homesteaders came to realize that Nature paid little attention to the foolish beliefs of men.

Farming has changed since Isaac's time, but put a group of farmers together, and chances are that in the course of their conversation the topic of rain will be discussed.


Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I wish I could share all the comments that people send me privately! Anyway, I'm glad that this post as garnered such a great response. Today in Isaac's Kansas community it is hot, dry, and windy, so I guess it was a timely post for this week.

The Blog Fodder said...

If the would-be settlers had looked around them at the vegetation, they might have guessed that rainfall was short and sporadic. However hope springs eternal, I guess. It is the wives and families of the "busted" homesteaders that I feel sorriest for.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Part of what helped them ignore the natural vegetation was the idea that "rain follows the plow." For some of them, they had exhausted all of their money to get to their land, relying on the representation of misleading promotional literature, and they had no funds to leave, even if they recognized the situation.

The Blog Fodder said...

I saw some of the abandoned homestead sites in eastern Colorado years back. Rich soil but the instant you drop a plough into it, it leaves on the next breeze. Heartbreaking.
Happened in Western Canada in the 30s.

Michael Hathaway said...

This is the sort of story about the struggles of our forebears that really makes one appreciate all of our modern-day conveniences.

Ads From The 1800s said...

I can't imagine hand-digging a well! Very interesting post. I look forward to reading your book someday soon!
All the best,
Aubrey Laughlin