The Old Farm Pump
Updated: Jun 23, 2022
A relic of bygone days brings back memories.
If you grew up on a farm, you may have used it a thousand times. Growing up in Iowa, I got water from an old farm pump for my horse, Sundance. I still remember pumping the water, the feel of the iron handle, the resistance of the water being pulled up to the spout. I still remember hearing the churning beneath, echoing up the shaft as I pumped, then hearing the gurgle of water rising up the spout and finally pouring out. I loved pumping the water. I felt like a pioneer. I imagined I was one. And I drank out of it, too. The water tasted sweet.
I had a five-gallon bucket that I filled about half full, then had to lug it about 75 feet to Sundance’s trough. I was a scrawny kid and carrying three gallons of water was hard work. I found that if I twirled around in a circle with the bucket and let centrifugal force take off some of the weight, I could twirl my way to the trough. Sundance would whinny to me, as if sending me encouragement.
Every farm had an iron water pump, known widely as a “pitcher pump.” I used to ride Sundance past an old farm stead that, during my growing-up years, had an old pump they didn’t use anymore. It had started to rust and had weeds growing around it. One day I rode past, and the pump was gone, just mounded dirt in its place. I felt sadness sweep over me. Why did they have to get rid of it? Why couldn’t they just let it be? I felt diminished somehow and every time Sundance and I passed that farm, I thought of it and missed it.
The old iron pump was a central part of farm and frontier and even many early town homes. It was a source of water that could be pumped out of the earth, a font of life for people, livestock and gardens. The first iron “pitcher pump” was cast and assembled in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, and the invention spread across the country so fast, manufacturers couldn’t keep up.
The pitcher pump is based on sort of plunger technology. A shaft up to 25 feet deep had to be augured into the ground to house a pipe that reach to the water table. Then the iron pump was installed above ground, connected to the pipe. Some of the parts inside the pump were actually made of leather, such as strapping and the gasket. As long as the pump was used regularly, the leather was kept moist and functional.
Pumps were usually installed near the house or mid-point between the house and barn, so that water could be carried a minimum distance. Deluxe cabins and homes might even have the pump installed inside in the kitchen, so the family would have “running water” of sorts.
Pitcher pumps provided water for the nation’s families and farms for a century or more. (Windmills also provided water for farms, usually in a pasture or feedlot. Look for a future post on them!) Indoor plumbing began to replace pitcher pumps for American families. In 1920, only 1% of homes had indoor plumbing. By 1940, nearly half the homes in America still lacked piped water, a bathtub or flush toilet. But, after World War II, indoor plumbing spread throughout the nation, even to rural homes. The pitcher pump slowly became outmoded, replaced by fancy indoor plumbing.
Some old pumps were removed from the ground and ended their lives in a scrap yard or found a new life in an antique store. Others remained stolid but still in the ground. The seasons passed, then the years, their jobs done, abandoned after having pumped many millions of gallons of water for generations, their patinas turning to rust, their leather strappings and gaskets inside, rotting away. They became shrouded in weeds, forsaken.
But some folks did not abandon the farm pump. They painted their old pump a bright color and planted flowers around its base to enshrine it, to celebrate it--a memorial to an iron relic of the past. Retired, but not forgotten.
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-Outhouses, Gems of American Architecture
-How to Build A Cabin
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