“Hand Dug Wells” by George Chatham

By George Chatham

In the area where my granddad Chatham and Great Uncle Elmer homesteaded there were no live springs or natural water holes to obtain water for household use or for the livestock to drink. So it meant that one of the first priorities of homesteading was digging a well. The two homestead wells I am familiar with were both hand dug. When well “drilling” started someone else may know.

A story I recall being told about my Great Uncle Elmer was the time he was digging the well on his homestead place. He was using a two blade post-hold digger to dig with. He accidently chopped into his toe, nearly cutting it off. As the story is told he went into the house, cleaned it up the best he could, covered it with cow salve, bandaged and taped the toe back on and went back down in the well and continued digging. He save the toe and ultimately finished digging the well.

I am familiar with the well he dug. It was about 2 1/2 feet across, just wide-enough for a man to stand and use a post-hold digger between his feet and placing the dirt in a bucket that had been let down on a rope and pulley. The well on Elmer’s homestead was 65 feet deep. At the bottom of the well when he reached the sandstone where the water was, Elmer had chiseled out a cistern in the sandstone that formed a small room about 6 or 7 feet in diameter to hold the water as it tricklelated in.


I helped my Dad, Vernon Chatham, re-plaster the walls of that well in the early 1960’s after our big cotton wood tree sent roots into the well knocking off some of the plaster. There was no metal casing to hold the well walls from caving in, only plaster. The water from that well was excellent water. That particular well went dry in the late 60 early 70’s when the farmers in Eastern Baca County and Western KS begin to do deep well irrigation. A new well was drilled that was around 110 feet deep, but the water from that well had a metallic taste and wasn’t nearly as good of water as the original dug well.

I was always fascinated to look down in these old wells. You did this that by taking a mirror and reflecting the sun down the well.

The picture below is of the old well house at my granddad Chatham’s homestead. The windmill (not in the picture) pumped water into a wooden water barrel, from the barrel into a vat which my grandfather used to keep milk and other things cool, from the vat out into the stock-tanks (which he kept gold fish in), and into a big pond he used for watering his big garden he raised each year.

Hand Dug Well the old well house

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