Water Tanks (Book Excerpt)
Every well and homestead we came to also brought to us a new respect for the people who had settled this broad plain. Each cabin, corral and water tank reflected the absolute necessity they were faced with and the resulting creativity required to assure their survival. First one must consider the utter scarcity of water and the effort it must have taken to establish a source of it. A man would lay claim to his 160 acres homestead or in some cases even more as the reality of the struggle to survive became apparent to the government officials and led them to grant larger claims. Then he had to decide where to dig his well, the first of which were hand dug and cased with rocks which themselves had to be gathered and carried from someplace else, the plains being covered with nothing but soil and grass. Once they had a well they constructed a windmill and then either dug or built tanks to contain the precious bounty. More than one cluster of trees on the flat grass plain revealed such an effort at its center.
Some of the places we came to had but a dug well and perhaps a metal casing nearby among a barely discernible litter of logs or the foundation of some crumbled cabin, evidence of a failed or abandoned effort. Others reflected success and might boast a wooden windmill tower anchored to hand hewn posts which had been axe cut and then hauled the many miles from the distant forest. These structures were set deep in the soil to support the tower and withstood years of wind and storm. Ponds and tanks were built to hold the water, some but a depression in the dirt, hollowed out by wind and rain and then bermed up with rocks to hold more water. Then there were others, which made me marvel at the men who built them and pause to wonder who their ancestors were for these were strong industrious men, such as are so hard to find. One tank in particular comes to mind, a rise of dirt and timber above an otherwise flat expanse. Axe cut logs, each eight or ten inches in circumference, were all bound together with old wire and set deep in soil which had to be dug and moved to support them. They surrounded a tank every bit of fifteen feet across and twice that in length, ten feet deep at least, filled with rushes to prove even now it held water. An old platform extended out into it also, likely to allow someone to dip fresh water from the center but surely also serving as a diving platform on a warm summers’ day.
When one considers the manual effort it took to build such a tank their admiration grows for these people. Every scoop of dirt was raised with a shovel and piled so high it remains there today. The tank walls stood fifteen feet above the flat, all of the work done by hand! There were others tanks also, more highly engineered and equally as admirable, several of which we found as we made our rounds, this builder ambitious and having surely gained some admiration from his fellow men. Here we found rough sawn boards from a mill, each a true two inches thick and twelve wide, set in concrete and bound by a thick cable in the same way a barrel is built but comprising a tank twenty feet across, still full of water! When were these built I wondered and I should return to ask for it is notable as well, the water soaked wood still filling the cracks even as the cable has worn grooves in the wood over the years from the simple natural shift of the earth. Too the cattle have polished the boards by rubbing against them as they provided the only place to scratch their hides on the otherwise barren plain. The very presence of these structures makes such a clear statement, “We are here to stay, we have survived and we shall prosper, no matter how humble our lives appear!”
Near these tanks we sometimes found cabins also and once again the axe cut trees hauled from the forest, hand planed and notched to seat firmly to one another, chinked with mud or cement, or not, dirt floors and low doorways, brittle tin still clinging to their roofs. I step inside as often as not to pause for a moment and wonder how these women lived and raised their children! I reflected on the cold winter we braved from the shelter of our truck and envision their children huddled near the fire as their men struggle with the elements to provide their sustenance, romantic, NOT! When there are clusters of cabins at least one has the comfort of knowing there were others there for some companionship and assistance, most often there were not.