I returned to an interview I did with my parents in 1982 for first-hand information. My dad, Henry Salzl, described his experience digging wells as not a simple endeavor: He said he and his brother-in-law Frank Jochum once dug a well 50 feet deep by hand. He said where his family settled in St. Martin, water was difficult to find.
“You had to be sure the well would produce enough water for everything that needed water," he said. "Sometimes you had a heck of a time finding that much water.
“When digging a well for my parents, we put a 2-by-4-foot post in each of the four corners," he said. "As we dug the dirt out, the corner posts slowly traveled down. Then side boards were set between them. When it got too deep to shovel, the dirt was loaded into a carrying bucket and hauled out by windlass — a winch, lifted out of the hole. The person on top (the assistant or tender) pulled the full buckets up.”
The person outside the well cranked the buckets of dirt up and lowered an empty bucket back down. Notice the huge pile of dirt pulled out of the well. The man at the top was also the lookout man, making sure the person in the well was safe. (Photo: Marilyn Salzl Brinkman)
My dad said he crawled in and out of the well by using a ladder and a rope. The hoist at the top had a lock on it.
“The buckets balanced one another; as an empty one was let down, its weight helped to raise the full one, which passed it as it was drawn up. We lowered curbings (supporting structures). The curbings were made of wood and had to be smaller than the hole so they would slide down. More were added from the top as they went deeper.”
Every digger was in constant danger that something might drop into the well on him — a careless move by the tender on the rim above might cause a tool to fall in; a weakened rope might break; a faulty ratchet might release and cause the loaded bucket to fall; misjudgment of the depth by the assistant might allow the rope to play out too rapidly and strike the digger below; or there might be a faulty attachment between the end of the rope and the bucket; the man at the top had to carry the bucket some distance away from the mouth of the well to empty it.
In my parents’ interview, they told of one well-digger who used quite large buckets. They were heavy and difficult to pull up. Eventually the winch gave way, a filled bucket fell back down the hole and hit the man, killing him.
For curious children who played near them, the open well was dangerous. Many pioneer stories tell of children and small animals falling into and drowning in open wells.
A few days after my picture find, I located another untitled and undated file on digging wells. It was given to me many years ago when I was working on another project. In it, I found a similar description of well digging in an earlier day. The information verified my dad’s story, gave it credibility.
The article explained that after an early settler had determined the location of his well, either by use of a water witch or by a blind guess, he started to dig. He started the open well by digging in a circle about 3 feet in diameter with a spade. He continued with pick and shovel until he could no longer throw the dirt out of the top, after which he secured the services of a helper.
The well was sunk partway by a method called cribbing (my dad called it curbing), whereby a hole is lined as it is dug, thus preventing cave-ins. Two-by-10-inch planks were cut into 4-foot lengths and nailed securely in the corners.
A log post with a fork at the top was set on each side of the hole. A straight log was laid across the forks, with a handle attached to one end. A rope was fastened to the log roller. By turning the crank, the operator wound the rope around the roller and pulled up bucket after bucket of dirt as the hole was dug deeper.
A tripod winch erected over a well was designed to lift buckets of dirt from the well as someone in the well dug deeper into the dirt. Two buckets were used to remove dirt. When one was full and cranked out of the well, the second was lowered down to the person digging at the bottom of the well. (Photo: Marilyn Salzl Brinkman)
Only one man could work in the hole at a time because of the restricted work space. He shoveled the dirt into an ordinary bucket. When the desired depth was reached, the person digging the hole was hoisted out with the rope.
The well was completed with a drive-point (screen) securely screwed onto a pipe. This was lowered into the middle of the hole and pounded down with a maul. When the drive point punctured the aquifer (water-bearing layer) and water rose visibly in the hole, the well was practically completed. A pump head was screwed onto the pipe. It was manipulated up and down with a 3-foot handle. A platform was built over the hole about 6-foot square.
Another well digging story
In “Life Stories Written by John Fleischhacker.” (St. Martin, 1981), Fleischhacker describes an open well used in about 1881 by his pioneer parents as dangerous, time-consuming and necessary. He wrote:
“The well that furnished the drinking water for the family, also for two cows they had, was an open well without a pump to get the necessary water. They used a wooden piece of branch sticking out to form a hook to hold in the handle of the pail when they had to get some water out of the open well. As the well was only 8 feet deep it wasn’t hard to get water when needed. But it had to be carried about 500 feet uphill to the house. … The 8-foot well was lined with rocks that formed a circle.”
The buckets were heavy enough that when lowered rapidly, “they sunk into the water with a gurgling sound,” he wrote.
Fleischhacker wrote that in 1901 the family dug a new closed well using hand labor. “It was 4x4 foot square by 42 feet deep. All the labor for digging and putting in the side wall planking was $15. … Digging in the hard clay subsoil was very hard work as all the clay had to be dug with a pick ax. It was very wet at that time and it must have been a very disagreeable job to work in the wet and sticky clay soil all day.
“Every morning before they could begin to work they had to take the water that had accumulated during the night out of the well and begin to dig in the mud that was sticking to the tools like glue and was very hard and heavy to work with. … As the subsoil was what they call blue clay and very hard, it all had to be picked or chiseled loose before it could be put into the bucket that was used to take the wet clay out of the well. A hand-powered turning winch was used to remove the clay from the well. It was done using two buckets. When full, one had to be cranked out of the well and the empty one was on the way back for another refill.”
The well pumped not only the water supply but also served as a refrigerator. Butter, milk and cream could be lowered into the well for cooling. A good well yielded 40-degree water year-round.
Open wells could be dangerous.
My dad said that, “In later years, the curbings were made of cement, like culverts, and professionals with the proper equipment dug the wells. It was progress,” he said.
My mother added that eventually most small towns had professional well diggers. She said, in those days, “Even if you had a farm, it was good if you had another trade with it. That’s how professional well-diggers started. They just helped their neighbors and soon they were considered professionals and dug wells for others and got paid.”
This column is the opinion of Marilyn Salzl Brinkman. Write to her at Brinkman1943@gmail.com or the St. Cloud Times, P.O. Box 768, St. Cloud, MN 56302.