Our central Wisconsin farm was one of those rocky, sandy, hilly, and droughty farms where it never seemed to rain enough. The entire family looked forward to a rainy day, and no matter how the rain may have disrupted what we had planned—cutting a field of hay, shocking grain, building a fence—we celebrated the rain. I learned from my dad during those dry-weather days a mantra that I still share with my children and grandchildren: “Never curse the rain.”
On a rainy day in July—when the morning chores were finished and the hay mows were filled with alfalfa, sweet clover, and timothy—Pa, my brothers, and I would crawl up into the hay mow, spread ourselves out on the sweet smelling hay, and listen to the patter of rain drops on the barn roof. It was our way of celebrating a rainy day.
A water pail sat on the edge of the sink in the farm kitchen when I was growing up. A dipper hung on its edge. If you wanted a drink of water you slipped the dipper into the pail and took out what you wanted, making sure to drink all that you took. Water was not to be wasted. The single pail of water was the source for my mother’s cooking, for washing hands and brushing teeth, and for filling the ever-present teakettle that sat on the wood-burning cook stove. When the pail was empty, it was my or my brothers’ responsibility to lift up the handle to engage the windmill and refill the pail. When someone would ask my dad if we had running water at our farm, his reply was, “Sure, all you need to do is fill a pail with water and run with it.”
These were the Depression years of the 1930s, when everything was scarce, including water. A drought as well as economic woes had settled over much of the country. The windmill not only filled the water pail that we carried into the kitchen. It also filled the cooling tank where we placed the milk cans from our twice-a-day milking, and it filled the stock tank where our herd of 14 or 15 cows and our team of horses drank. I remember so well when, during a series of summer days with clear skies and scorching heat, the wind did not blow, the windmill did not turn, and we were out of water. There is no worse sound than that of livestock gathered around the stock tank, bellowing for water. It put our own thirst aside. The stock tank was empty. The cooling tank was empty. Had it not been for a neighbor who powered his pump with a gasoline engine, we would have been in dire straits. We harnessed the team, hitched them to our wagon, and hauled milk cans of water—precious water. First we filled the stock tank, then the cooling tank, and finally there was enough water to fill the pail that sat on the edge of the sink in the kitchen.
Shortly after that episode, Pa bought a used gasoline engine to power our pump—our well was 180 feet deep and impossible to pump by hand. Now we could be ensured of water for the cows, horses, pigs, and chickens—and for our personal use. During the early years of WWII, with milk and hog prices up a bit, Pa bought a new pump. But it was still powered by our gasoline engine as electricity did not come to our farm until 1947. This new pump, along with a pipe from the pump house to the barn, filled a tank in the barn’s loft. We finally had running water in our barn. Now with individual drinking cups, the cows could drink when they wanted.
Asked why he didn’t also run a pipe to the house, Pa replied, “No money comes out of the house.” Our cows were our main source of income—their welfare came first. I left home for college in 1951. Indoor plumbing in the old farmhouse would come a few years later.
My appreciation for water continues today. My concern for all the issues swirling around this vital resource goes back to my days on the farm and the lessons I learned about conserving water. We welcomed the rain because just about everything we did on the farm ultimately depended on water.