By The Old Dug Well
The path behind my childhood home curved around privets, cedars, oaks and hickories, down to a well that Daddy had dug with hand tools. This well not only supplied water for everyday usage, but also provided a cool place to store a jug of milk before electricity came to Banner Mountain, in the Ozarks Foothills.
My six siblings and I were proud of Daddy’s skill in digging the 20-foot well. A rock wall stood about two feet above the ground, forming its large curb. The wooden cover had an opening where the bucket by an attached rope was lowered into the well. The water level came almost to the top of the ground. Spring-fed and pure the water had a sweet taste all its own. The well never ran dry.
In spring, when first wildflowers popped through the earth, my siblings and I would brave the cool mornings, barefoot, to carry water for Mama.
Each summer morning, after milking the cow, we would carry the milk in a glass syrup jug to the well, tie a rope onto the bail and let the jug of milk down into the cool water where it stayed until suppertime.
In the fall, as we walked along the path, the dry, brown leaves crunched beneath our feet. Hickory nuts from the tall tree invited us to stop for a snack. We placed the nuts on a flat rock warmed by the sun and cracked the nuts with a smaller rock.
Sometimes, we broke a twig from a black gum tree and fashioned a toothbrush, in a manner taught by Mama.
One day, in freezing weather, my sister was washing her hair and she ran out of water for rinsing off the soap. She walked with wet hair to the well for water, and by the time she returned to the house, icicles had frozen on her hair.
Mama’s washtubs and wash kettle were arranged near the well, where she and my older sisters did the wash. The washtubs sat on boards laid across flat rocks. Daddy cut wood and built a fire under the kettle to heat the water.
My favorite delicacy was the taste of an egg cooked in its shell in hot ashes under the kettle.
A most memorable experience at the well occurred when I was about thirteen. I had discovered that boys were interested in me. My first “date” was with a dark-haired boy who walked me home from church one night when I spent the night with my sister and her husband who lived close to the church. Without telephones, I had no chance to ask my parents’ permission but the next day I wanted desperately to tell Mama about my “date.” I was afraid she would be angry with me, and didn’t quite know how to tell her.
I was thinking intently of the boy as I carried the milk jug down the path. Arriving at the well, deep in thought, I immediately turned around, the milk jug still in my hand, and walked back to the house. When I realized my mistake, I flew back to the well to put the milk jug into the cool water.
Then with as much courage as I could gather, I explained to Mama about my date. “A boy wanted to walk me home,” I told her.
Later, I overheard Mama tell my sister that I’d said a boy wanted to walk me home.
“Wanted to?” my sister exclaimed. “Didn’t she tell you that he did?”
Mama laughed. My half-truth cleared the way to a wonderful communication with her, which became stronger as I grew into womanhood.
The well continued to supply water, to keep milk from turning sour, and to be the setting for happy family experiences until most of my siblings grew up and left home.
When our family acquired a new water supply, it was not city water, but a well dug by a drilling rig. The new well was close to our kitchen door. There was a long, slender bucket with a chain attached to a pulley, which made it easy to draw water. By now, we also had electricity and a refrigerator to cool the milk.
But the well that Daddy dug had served more than its original purpose. It provided us with unforgettable memories that convenience, however pleasant, could not do.
c copyright 2006, Freeda Baker Nichols
Published in The Standard and re-printed in The Old Time Chronicle, Summer 2006 Issue