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James R. Stout

The Well

            My grandparents got married in 1921. Their wedding gift (my mother called it a bribe) from my grandfather’s parents was a piece of land that was part of my great-grandparent’s farm. It would be quite a gift by today’s standards and to tell the truth it was quite a gift by those days’ standards despite the fact that land was cheap back then. How cheap? Well, the last bit of land that my grandfather bought to complete his farm was a 100-acre tract that adjoined his property. That was in 1950. He purchased that tract for $22.50 an acre in 1950. Can you imagine buying prime farm land for that today? And that was 30 years after they had gotten married. The cost of land had risen quite a bit between 1921 and 1950.

            All that said, the original tract of land that was gifted to them in 1921 included an old house. It was a two-story house built by the people who had owned the land before my grandparent’s bought it. The house was drafty, with little in the way of insulation, but it served them well for the first 13 years of their marriage. They would build another house, a house that is still standing, in 1933-1934 using many of the massive beams that had been part of the original house on the land. The house may not be as aesthetic as the one my great-grandparents built in 1912, but it has good bones and has been well-cared for now for nearly 90 years. My mother used to say the wedding gift was a way for my grandparents to keep my grandfather from moving away. But the truth is he loved that land. He worked that land literally until two days before he died in 1967 at the age of 67. On Thursday April 20, 1967 he was digging post holes for a new fence not more than a hundred yards from where I sit writing this now. He went home for lunch complaining of indigestion for the 3rd time that week and my grandmother insisted he go see the doctor about it the next day. Well, he did see the doctor the next day and was informed that he had been having a bunch of little heart attacks all week. They put him in the hospital for observation. The next morning, we got the call that he had a massive heart attack and died instantly. For us it was the end of an era. I was 11 years old and was very close to my him. He was the second person in my life in two years that I was very close to that died. I am thankful for the hours, days, and weeks that I got to spend with him in my early life. He was a fantastic grandfather. He was a great man by any standard.

            Going back to 1921 now. The newlyweds relied on rainwater captured in a cistern at first. Grandpa felt sure that there was an underground spring beneath the area where the house was. So, he began to dig. By hand with a shovel. He braced the well as he went with two-by-four lumber. I can’t imagine how he must have felt digging deeper and deeper in the darkness of that well. Sure, he had a coal oil lantern, but he was down there by himself doing what was necessary. Something that 4 generations later don’t have a clue how to do. It may not seem very deep, but he struck an underground spring at about 30 feet. Water started to fill the well and he told us all how it was quite a scramble for him to get out of there, climbing back up the slippery mud walls of the well, without drowning. And I get bent out of shape in an MRI machine. He had more than the right stuff in my book.

            He had gone to Sam Houston State University for a year and learned quite a bit in that time about agriculture and farming. He probably had learned more in his first 18 years of life just living on a farm. But one thing that he knew for sure was that before he could use the water from that spring, he needed to make sure it was safe to drink. So, he gathered a sample. We take for granted today the ease with which we go from one place to another. In order for my grandpa to have that sample tested by Texas A&M University he had to first hitch his two mules to the wagon and spend an entire day getting to Trinity, Texas 12 miles away. He left the wagon and mules in a livery stable and took the train down to Huntsville, Texas another 19 miles away. He was then able to have the sample sent over to A&M for testing. But it would be about three weeks before he got the answer. I can only imagine his excitement upon receiving a letter from Texas A&M letting him know that the spring water was very pure. One of the purest that they had tested in a long time. It was great news for my grandparent’s who were now expecting their first child in May of 1922. Grandpa set to work finishing the well. More bracing and brick and earth mortar had to be installed by hand. Then the well top. This was also made by brick and mortar. One of the things he did as he fashioned that well top was to make a ledge around the inside of it a couple of feet inside the well. The ledge was big enough for milk and butter to be kept cool. Milk that came from their own cows and butter from that churned by hand by my grandmother.

            Now, I like milk and I love me some good butter. But my mother fairly well loathed both. Why? Because she said that growing up in the 30’s the butter and milk would sour or become rank after too long on that ledge. She had a lifelong dislike for butter and milk because of that. They didn’t get their first “ice box” until the late 30’s. It was not electric. They didn’t get electricity until the same month that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That first “ice box” ran on kerosene. But by then she had no taste for milk or butter.

            By the time I can remember, in the late 50’s, they had an electric refrigerator and Grandpa had installed an electric pump to the old well and there was running water in the house. Although, I do remember taking baths in a big wash tub in the kitchen a few times. Poor Grandma! Heck, things had gotten downright modern by 1960. I watched Roy Rogers and Sky King on an old Zenith black and white TV. Grandma’s round ottoman served as both “Silver” and “Songbird” for my adventures with those heroes of mine.

            Thinking about what it took for my grandparents to make a life for themselves in the 1920’s makes me realize just how soft we’ve gotten. Each generation since then has lost so much in the way of knowledge on how to live without the many modern conveniences and electronics that are such a part of life 100 years later. Grandma used to tell us about the first time she ever saw a car. It was a big deal in 1909 to see one. They didn’t own their own automobile until 1928 when they purchased a farm truck. From what I was told it was quite the beast. A 1928 Chevrolet 1-ton stake bed farm truck. No heater, stick shift, no radio, and pretty much not much else. Heck, they paid extra just to have a cab. An uncle of my grandmother’s had a similar truck that he called “Mulee”. It didn’t have the cab and you just rode out in the elements. But it beat mules and wagons. Today’s young people would feel mistreated and treated unfairly if they didn’t have power windows, power locks, automatic transmission, Bluetooth stereo system, heated seats, etc. Some of the cars I owned as a young man weren’t much better than that old truck.

            I worry about America a lot these days. If a major upheaval were to happen in which we no longer had electricity and electronics, then how would the people survive? Some would, but too many wouldn’t. I won’t ponder that now, but you can and think long and hard about how you would survive. We need to teach our children’s children how to do without their cell phones and computers. Yes, they need to know how to use them because those skills are necessary for their future. But they also need to put them down or turn them off and learn how to make do without them. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I think I’ll go have a glass of cold milk and perhaps some toast with butter. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to milk the cow and churn the butter in order to enjoy those treats. But you know what? I could if I had to. Could you?

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