Old Albany Days: Dry times in Kansas, Part I

Submitted by Travis McCoy

The creek is dry and showing its muddy bed only in the lowest spots as the hot July sun reaches out with its warm fingers of light, vaporizing what was once wet and dry baking the soil, plants and animals left behind. The once green, lush grasses of the fields have turned brown in the hot dry air, and for once, even the weeds seem to be struggling for survival. Great cracks have opened in the dark brown soil, as if threating to swallow up features of this world and send them into the depths below.

Something must be done if the farm is to survive this arduous drought. The stock cattle need water, as do the horses, hogs and chickens. The vegetables in the garden that will ensure plenty of food for the long winter must have water as well. Some of the livestock had to be sold last week due to limited forage in the pasture, and a paltry hay crop was gathered that has left the hay mow only half full. In trying times like this, the determined, stubborn, and tenacious will of the farm family shines through.

A spade, bucket and rope are brought up from the barn and the digging begins. Grandfather used a forked green willow branch to “divine” where the water might be, and so marked the spot before dirt was disturbed.

The going is strenuously difficult, and often a pickaxe is needed to cut through the hard soil and dried roots as the hole begins to drop deeper and deeper into the parched earth. Eventually the hole reaches 20 feet in depth, and while damp, water has not been found. A week of back-breaking work yields no more than some mud in the bottom of a seemingly bottomless hole.

As the next day dawns and chores are completed, a curious young girl peers over the edge of the hole and drops in a small dirt clod. A splash is heard echoing back as the little girl stands up and runs whooping with joy to find her mother and father.

“Water in the hole! Water!” She screams in delight as mother and father come to investigate the commotion. The casing of the well begins in earnest, so as to keep the earthen walls from caving in.

I hope you enjoyed this first part of a short story about dry times on the frontier. It seems remarkable to me that even a century or more later, the sobering truth of a drought in farm country is no less worrisome.

We are celebrating the discovery and utilization of Water on the American Frontier at the 52nd Annual Old Albany Days. Windmills, pumps, drilling rigs and the like are all part of the show. Come join us Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 8 and 9, at the Albany Museum north of Sabetha.

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