By George Little
Published Saturday, April 28, 2007
My Grandpa Andrews knew how to “witch” a well. He could make a forked stick quiver and bend and point straight down to where the water was. Sometimes it was all he could do to keep a hold on it. He used a Y-shaped branch trimmed off a peach tree.
He said peach branches worked the best, but on the right day he could make do with cherry or willow.
Before satellite imaging and geologic surveys, witching wells was a common practice. Practically every old farmhouse between here and La Harpe has a well that was witched by somebody.
I watched him do it one spring morning when I was about 7 years old. Grandpa started off walking slow, holding the branch with one hand on each side of the Y with the straight end of it pointing forward. Pretty soon, the pointed end of the branch started bending toward the ground. Two more steps, and it strained against Grandpa’s grip. Then the handles bowed and the stick pointed straight down. He backed up about 10 steps and the stick straightened out again. Then, he came at it from a different direction. The stick marked the same spot. Grandpa jammed a shovel in the ground and told my dad that’s where the water was.
Two days of digging and 20 feet down, Dad and Uncle Dick were knee deep in rising water. One of them kept bailing, and the other worked as fast as he could to brick up the sides of the new well. In the hot, dry times when lots of people were hauling water, the well Grandpa witched never failed.
Water witching, also called “divining” or “dowsing,” has been practiced for centuries. Experienced dowsers say anybody can do it. They say dowsing is a psychic ability latent in most people. Critics say it’s something straight out of a medicine show, that the holder makes the stick do tricks, and water can be found practically anywhere if you dig deep enough. Dowsers contend that the best time to witch for water is in the spring when the sap is rising. Critics say the only sap involved is the person who believes in witching wells.
Dowsing would be an interesting event to add to a total outdoorsman challenge. Of course, it wouldn’t be good enough to just get the forked peach stick to point down. The well actually would have to be dug. That might cut into spectator interest. It’s fascinating to see somebody witch a well, but watching somebody dig one is a horse of a different color
Some say water witching is a paranormal phenomenon. Whatever it is, I’m a believer. I saw that peach stick bend and almost jump out of Grandpa’s hand. I saw it point straight down to mark the spot to sink a well. I had never seen anything like it. I’ve been to town two or three times since then, and I still haven’t.
George Little is an outdoors writer living in Springfield. E-mail [email]email@example.com