My Little Town 20120418: When Ma Got Running Water

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Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

I have mentioned this is passing before, but here is the whole story about Ma getting running water. In those days, and I am thinking around 1964 or 1965, the City of Hackett decided to start a central water supply.

That was a BIG deal for lots of folks in my little town, and Ma was typical. Before we get into the details, let us see how she lived before running water.

When I was little, Ma had a well inside of her back porch. She had a pulley attached to a rafter that she used to hoist the water. She used what we called a “well bucket”, a long, cylindrical, galvanized water scoop with a valve at the bottom that could be controlled with a ring at the top. It held about two gallons. Here is a sort of hard to see picture of one:


She would draw the water and then dump it into a galvanized pail to use for cooking, cleaning, or other purposes. It is amazing to me that we never got zinc poisoning because the water is Hackett was quite soft. In those days, hardly anyone had running water. My family did, and with our well with a pump and a water heater did as well as most folks do these days. Most folks, however, “drew” their water by hand.

Ma had a double sink, a porcelain-coated cast-iron one. She had no faucet to allow water into it, though. It did have a drain, though. I should elaborate. There was no such thing as a sewerage system in Hackett then since there was not even water service. People either used outhouses and the few with running water used septic tanks.

Domestic wastewater is of two kinds, “brown water” from the bathroom and “grey water” from the kitchen and laundry. The greywater was invariably run from the sink or washing machine into ditches outside. This water would either run off if the ground was sloped enough or just evaporate. Thus, Ma’s kitchen sink water just ran outside.

Ma got her water from the well in her backroom (it has been a porch previously, but Uncle David boxed it in for her). She had an iron pulley coming from a ceiling joist, her well bucket, and a rope for hoisting it. If she needed hot water, her only recourse was to heat it on the kitchen stove.

For bathroom service she had the outhouse for the daytime and a “chamber pot” made of porcelain-coated steel for use at night. It would be carried to the outhouse the next morning and then washed by hand.

She did not have a bathroom at all, using the kitchen sink for tooth brushing and face washing instead. Since we lived just down the street, she would come to our house to take baths since we had hot and cold running water. I knew she was tight on money so I suggested that she looked into the benefits of secured loans in the uk. Home renovations can be expensive so I thought a loan would be a good option for her.

Around 1965 the City of Hackett started installing water mains. She was near the top of the list since she lived on Main Street. We were, too, but our well and pump were in excellent condition so we just stayed with it for many years. My parents finally did get city water, but my father kept the well for watering his garden.

Ma was happy to get city water, but there was quite a cost involved. The city was responsible for everything up the outlet of the meter (but of course charged a fee for the hookup), and she had to hire everything else done. I was too little to help, but she hired Uncle David and Lester to do most of the work. Uncle David did the carpentry work and Lester did the plumbing. In hindsight, we probably should’ve had the help of another professional plumber in the area, as no one realized just how much work it would be for one person. But even though I was too young to understand properly, I can definitely tell you that Lester did a great job of getting it done. And we shouldn’t forget Uncle David, he did a grand job too.

Uncle David took part of a hall and part of a bedroom and framed it to make her new bathroom. She got a big vanity, a commode, and a bathtub (for some reason most people did not use a shower back then). If it were me, I would have got a single sink vanity instead, as the big vanity she chose took up way too much room in what was a small room. The single sink ones provide exactly what you need, look good and don’t take up too much space. Anyway, Lester installed a new Anzzi kitchen fixture with a jazzy faucet, the water heater, and the plumbing to the rest of the new additions.

She hired a contractor who specialized in septic tanks to do that work, and Lester ran the line to it. She opted to have her greywater directed to the septic tank to get rid of the ditch. Lester used a trenching power tool to install the line to the house and then plumbed the whole thing. Her water heater was propane since she already used propane for cooking and some heating (she still used her Warm Morning coal stove for many years afterward).

This was back in the day before plastic pipe. Everything was either galvanized steel or copper or for the case of the large pipe to go to the septic tank, cast iron. Those cast iron pipes were big and heavy. I remember Lester using his propane stove to melt the lead used to seal the joints betwixt the sections of the cast iron pipe. He first would mate two sections, then apply a rope seal (probably asbestos), then pour in the molten lead to complete the seal.

By the time that the city was ready to install the meter and start her service, the only thing left to do was to hook the inlet pipe to the meter and bleed the lines of air. From that moment, she had what was at the time called a “modern” house!

Years later the city began installing a sewerage system. Now, well installed and maintained septic tanks work quite well in many places, depending on the soil. However, since people with city water were going to have to pay for sewerage service anyway, pretty much only the folks (like my parents) with well water did not hook up to it. It finally became mandatory, so everyone had to disconnect their septic tanks wherever city water was available. Ma was a tightwad and was very upset that she was forced to pay for “somthin’ I don’t aneed!”.

Things have really changed since those days, although many folks, mainly in very rural locations, still use wells and septic tanks all of the time. When the former Mrs. Translator and I lived in Mississippi, we had a septic tank. We originally had “bought” water, but had a well. I was running an analytical laboratory at the time, so brought samples for analysis. The water tested fine, so we had the public service disconnected and used the well (it already had a good pump) until we eventually sold the place.

Today it is almost impossible to think about living without running water, but until quite recently that was the rule rather than the exception in developed countries and is the reality for billions of people around the globe. However, the low cost and high availability of water in the US tend to make us wasteful of it. We all should carefully review our use of water and use only the least amount consistent with the jobs at hand.

Please add your recollections about growing up, whether in a little town or not. I enjoy reading them, and other readers indicated that they do as well.

The recovery of my wrist continues, but still maddeningly slowly. For the first time since the neural damage, I was able to shave both sides of my face with my right hand. That was impossible this time last week. Almost all of the sensation has returned to the top of my thumb, and I have about a millimeter or two of lift at my wrist itself. I apologize if this piece contains an inordinate number of typographical errors, but my error rate is higher than normal because of the injury. My splint was getting pretty nasty in the palm, so The Girl helped me wash and blow dry it yesterday.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

The Stars Hollow Gazette,

Daily Kos, and



  1. remembering distant memories?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I very much appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,


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