Most farm houses had cisterns when I was a girl. Instead of using water from a convenient faucet, supplied by a public utility, we had to go to the cistern to get water needed for household use.
To make a cistern, a hole about ten feet deep and about six feet across was dug, usually on a high spot near the house. Cement applied to the sides and bottom of the hole kept dirt from falling into the water.
On top of the hole, a wooden or cement platform held a device for drawing up water. Sometimes it was a metal box-like structure with tin “cups” on a chain going down into the water. It could be wound and unwound with a handle.
On our farm, we had a big round top which I remember being made of some type of pottery material. It had a tin top with a door in the center. We opened the door, dropped a pail attached to a rope down into the water, and hauled it up. No easy pump for us!
Usually, we used rain water to fill the cistern. Dad would wait a few minutes after the rain started to give it a chance to wash the roof. Then he’d turn a crank which opened the end of the eaves trough. Water then drained through a metal box filled charcoal and on into the cistern.
If we had a dry spell, Dad would buy a tank of water when our supply ran low. Before the water was pumped into the cistern, Dad would clean it. He’d go down into it using a ladder and scrub the walls and floor. I remember seeing pails of muddy water being lifted out during the process.
Even with Dad’s efforts to clean the roof before catching rain water and scrubbing the cistern once in a while, I often wonder how clean the water actually was. We didn’t have any problems with illness caused by our water. Maybe we were just more immune to germs in those days.
We children were cautioned to stay away from the cistern. However, when my parents weren’t looking, my younger sister and I used to open the lid on top and shout down into it just to hear the echo. We ignored the danger of falling in, but my husband Bud can prove that danger was real.
When he was just four years old, Bud and his five-year-old sister Kay were playing on top of the cistern beside their house. The wooden top gave way and Bud fell into the cistern.
Luckily, their cistern had a pump on top to draw up the water. Bud grabbed onto the pipe leading from the pump down into the water - a few feet above the actual water level - and held on while Kay ran for help.
One neighbor lowered another man into the cistern, holding onto the straps of his overalls, and the man pulled Bud up. He received only a bruise on his hip and a scratch on his arm, but I don’t think Bud needed any more warnings to stay off the cistern.
I’d never give up the convenience of clean, running water coming out of a faucet, but I treasure the memories I have of cisterns. They were an important part of growing up on a farm way back when.