The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Well Digging

By R. C. Loyd, Jr. © 1992

Issue: April, 1992

It used to be a highly respected vocation. Most practitioners only did it part time. But there were the experts among those part timers.

Lots of people can dig a hole in the ground. Not everyone can tell you where to dig to get water, or how deep you will have to go for it.

Whether it is water witching or common sense is subject to question. I like to think it is a combination of the two that makes a good well digger.

During my growing up days we carried water from a spring. Those who were lucky had a hand dug well. Very few people these days have either. Now there are drilled, punched, or bored wells. A few country folks still pump water from a spring.

A dug well would run from thirty to over a hundred feet deep. Most would average eighty feet deep and about four feet in diameter. Some tapered slightly toward the bottom.

Digging one involved a windlass crew at the surface and the digger in the well. Most of the time two worked the windlass to bring up the dirt and dump it.

Ideally the digger would try to get ten or twelve feet below the "vein" of water. Sometimes it would run in too fast, but most of the time they were successful.

A lot of the time you would hit solid rock and have to blast your way through, or at least blast out a cavity for the water to collect in.

I am related to, and always considered myself a part of, a family whose father was blinded by blasting in a well. The charge had apparently failed to go off. After a reasonable time he looked in, just as the delayed blast went off.

He was already a widower. But with the older children, especially the eldest daughter, taking care of the younger ones, he raised a highly respected family of six children.

Maintaining a well sometimes involved cleaning it out. You would have to draw it down and clean out accumulated silt or dirt that had caved in from the walls. Sometimes the water table would lower and you had to dig deeper.

Whatever the reason, the initial digging was seldom the last time a well was entered.

One such incident happened to my brother John and me about 1948. He was newly married and they were going to move in an old farm house Dad owned near our home place. The house had not been in use for several years and he felt the well needed cleaning.

His brother-in-law, Buford, worked below and we windlassed. A dead black snake and some dead mice came up along with the mud.

After three or four hours Buford thought everything was good. He informed us that he would come up after two or three more loads. Since he had been working in the available light he wanted a flash light to inspect his handiwork.

We sent one down and looked on as he inspected the job. Suddenly he hugged the wall and called us to send the shovel back down. He made a few chops and said, "Take her up."

We brought up a copperhead snake that he had severed just behind the head. The total length was between two and three feet, about as big as they get.

It was living in an indentation about shoulder high at the water line. He had started to clean it out by hand but on a hunch took the precaution of asking for the flash light.