Old Albany Days: Dry Times in Kansas, Part III

Travis McCoy’s 1916 Chore Boy engine runs his grandfather’s pumpjack.

Submitted by Travis McCoy

The garden flourishes in the warm sunlight with large green beans, ripening crimson tomatoes, and long ears of sweet corn with whiskery silk shooting from their tops. The ground is cool and damp with water, a scarce commodity until now. Muddy footprints and muddy feet are signs of a little girl’s hard work in the garden, keeping the weeds at bay and the fresh vegetables in an ever-filling basket.

Our “giant” windmill towers above the little farmyard and hums along happily. Fresh clean water flows abundantly into the little wooden tank as the pump rod moves up and down in its metronomic beat. The girl is kept busy hauling buckets of this wonderful water up to the garden and making sure the plants are kept happy. When the cows arrive after their nap, the scene becomes competitive as they begin slurping up the water as fast as it comes pouring out.

As the cows drink, the tank begins to empty. Water has stopped flowing from the pipe, and a whining metallic creak can be heard above at the head of the windmill. The wheel freezes in place, and the pump rod has stopped its constant beat. The breeze has stopped, making the air warm and muggy once again.

Cicadas and grasshoppers can be heard chuckling among themselves as the little girl trots along to the woodshed where a strange wheeled machine is parked under the lean-to. Papa stops splitting firewood and helps to push the contraption up to the windmill, with his daughter at the helm, pulling and steering the tiny cart.

An incentive to buy the windmill; the strange contraption, called a “gasoline engine” was included to be used on a trial basis for 30 days. Papa is still on the fence about whether to purchase such a costly and complicated little machine. In a few short minutes the pump rod is disconnected from the motionless windmill, and the pumpjack is connected. A long belt that resembles a looped ribbon links the pumpjack to the little engine.

“Can I start it, Papa?” The little girl asks as she gazes at the bright paint and the shiny spoked wheels of the engine. Papa nods, but remains watchful for any trouble. The switch to the batteries is pulled, fuel valve opened, and with a short “flip” of the flywheels, the little contraption begins to snort and pop merrily. The engine fires with a crack, then breathes and coasts as the belt and pumpjack start turning. A small puff of smoke can be seen occasionally with the pop of the exhaust.

At the other end of the belt, the pumpjack is turning, the gears meshing and the arms raising and falling with the sucker rod. The water returns, bubbling and gushing as if it had never been absent. The tank fills up again and the thirsty cows come back to drink some more.

I hope you enjoyed this final part of Dry Times in Kansas. Join us at Old Albany Days on Sept. 8 and 9 and check us out online at facebook.com/AlbanyMuseum. We will be sharing The Story of Water on the American Frontier with everyone.

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