Replica edition News Sports Obituaries Opinion Church Special Sections Photos Contact Us Email Updates

OPINION: Going to fetch a pail of water

June 9, 2021 at 5:30 a.m.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down, and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

The Jack and Jill rhyme was probably the first nursery rhyme I learned in life. And as with others, I always wondered about it, because it didn't fit very well the common things I noticed about the world I was growing up in. For example, most of the wells I was familiar with were not up a hill. Most likely, if not on a level with the house, the well was likely to be down the hill, rather than up the hill. I always assumed that Jack and Jill were going up the hill to the well, where they would draw a pail of water.

At home, in the days before electricity, that was what I was familiar with, going to the well to draw a pail of water. For farm families before the 1940s, going to the well for a bucket of water was one of life's most familiar and regular routines. I later realized that Jack and Jill might have been going up to a spring, rather than to a well. Fetching water was one of the first chores that many of us learned to master and to do for our family. I didn't really think of it as work, it was just a part of living to go out and draw a pail of water and bring in to be kept in the kitchen for all the things we needed it for, cooking, drinking, washing dishes, washing faces, brushing our teeth, everything for which water was needed. I was actually kind of proud of being able to do the fetching, which involved letting the well bucket down into the well, maneuvering it so that it filled with water, and pulling the rope to draw the filled bucket up out of the well. I had to learn to pour the water from the well bucket into my pail without spilling the water. In the house, our water heater was a kettle that normally stayed on the top burners of our wood-fired kitchen range.

That would change when we got electricity in 1945, but early on, if you needed hot water you poured water into the kettle and put it on the cook stove to heat it up. Of course, there had to be firewood in the stove, and somebody had to carry that in from the woodpile outside. The kettle was interesting to watch as the water heated. As the water reached boiling temperature, sometimes the kettle would begin to whistle, and there would be steam coming out of the pouring spout at the top. I remember thinking it was curious that just out of the spout you couldn't see anything coming out, but very close to the spout you would see fog coming out. I suppose the unseen inch or two was steam properly named, and the fog was condensation as the steam contacted the cooler air. I always thought that rushing steam was curious, curiously unseen but seriously hot and vigorous. I would only learn later that that same principle was able to power the Choo Choo trains, as we used to call them in the old days of steam powered locomotives.

At the time I was growing up, many farm people were having wells drilled, using truck-mounted well-drilling rigs which worked by pounding a small hole in the ground using a bit that was repeatedly dropped from a height, or by a circular drill bit. The drilled wells would be no more than 10 inches in diameter, so a special well bucket, very long and narrow, was required for drawing water. Our old farm well, on the other hand, was a dug well, which would be worked out by having a man digging down deeper and deeper until he hit an adequate stream of water. Then the well would be lined with rocks around the circumference. So our well was about three feet in diameter, and we used a common bucket with a rope tied to the bail for drawing water. Often at the top of a well, there would be a framework to support a pulley over which the well rope worked to help draw the water.

Some families had springs of water rather than wells. My wife's family had a spring just up the valley, running from the hill behind their house. They were able to fix a basin that would catch the spring water in quantity, and even installed a pipe to bring the water into the house. So they had spring water on tap in the kitchen, while many others of us were still going to the well to fetch a pail of water. My mother's family, who lived north of Bentonville, also had a little spring with excellent water, but they used the basin for dipping their pail of water. Their spring was not higher than the house, so they couldn't have gravity fed running water.

Most of us get our water from city water systems today, and as northwest Arkansas has grown, most of us have gone to a regional water system that draws from Beaver Lake. We would not be able to sustain the burgeoning population in our corner of the state without the lake's water supply. Even many of our rural areas have connected to the lake system. Our farm still uses a farm well. It is not the same old dug well that we used in the early days. But it is a deeper well close by, which supplies a much greater supply of water. Of course, even a modern well with an electric pump, pressure tank and water lines, has to be maintained, and can sometimes produce big expenses. But having good water is one of the blessings we enjoy, and sometimes we need to appreciate it more.


Editor's note: This column first ran April 10, 1919. Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.


Sponsor Content


Recommended for you