Sometimes you just hit the lottery without even trying. I was fortunate that I had the chance to grow up in the Appalachians. At the time I didn’t appreciate that fact as I should have but looking back now I can see the advantages. There are snapshots in my early life that are as real and vibrant as if I was there today, and this is one of those tales. Let me describe to you the experience of, as a young child, my first-time drinking water straight from a hand-dug Appalachian well.
The Construction of the Appalachian Well
The well was located on a slight bank by the house. My grandfather had dug the well himself by hand back when he was a younger man, and it never failed to have water. The Appalachian well had sides constructed of various native stones and rocks, all roughly cemented in place.
You may have seen many Appalachian wells that have a top with a rope or chain, and a side crank to lower and raise a bucket. This well had a similar design, but the cross member held a single pulley. There was a small chain lying on the side of the well, and the chain had a metal bucket attached to it.
Drawing the Water
Out of convenience and practicality, this Appalachian well was located only a short distance from their house. I went to the well with my grandfather and my cousin. I was quite young at the time, as was my cousin, so water drawing responsibilities fell to my grandfather.
My grandfather was of average height, but he was very stocky. The man was naturally muscular, and even later in his 90s he could throw a heavy bag of feed over his shoulder and take off walking without effort. Drawing water from the well was a simple chore for him.
I remember watching as he picked the bucket and chain up, then started lowering the bucket into the well. The bucket shook and bounced as he let the links fall through his strong hands. I could see the business end of the chain quickly disappear into the darkness as I peered on tiptoe from the well’s edge.
Eventually, there was a small splash sound, and I knew the bucket had reached the water. My grandfather extended the chain a little more, and then there was the slightest yank as the bucket filled with water. It was time to pull back the prize.
Back from the Abyss
My grandfather quickly and deftly pulled the bucket back out of the water, using a quick hand over hand motion. At my young age, I was excited to see what exactly came back out of the dark depths of the well, so I tried to stand even taller to get a better view.
Soon I could see the bucket emerge from the shadows, and at first, I thought that we had missed the mark. The bucket appeared to be empty, and I started to suggest that we try it again. But suddenly the chain motion caused the bucket to jerk, and ripples formed across the surface of the water. I knew then that we had a full load of clear fresh water to try. Suddenly I was very thirsty.
Using the Dipper
My grandfather continued to work the chain, bringing the water ever so closer to the top of the well. Finally, it was there, and he sat it on the well’s edge. He produced a metal ladle (which he called a dipper) from seemingly out of nowhere and placed it in my small hands. He then lowered the bucket to a convenient height and motioned for me to take a drink.
I looked at the dipper for a second, trying to determine the best strategy for doing this. It was discolored and slightly dented in places, but otherwise perfectly usable. Applying whatever logical dipping skills that existed in my young brain at the time, I tightened my grip and lowered it to the water bucket still being held by my patient grandfather.
I placed the dipper into the water and pulled it across the surface, feeling the resistance as it moved. The metal dipper quickly filled up, and I cautiously pulled it back out of the water and attempted to bring it to my mouth. Unfortunately, my arms were just too short to make that happen. It seems that I had a high grip on the handle, and it was too tall for me to reach up and still bring the container to my lips. But I did try, repeatedly.
My grandfather softly chuckled and while holding the bucket in one hand reached out and carefully got the full dipper. He then told me to get a grip on the bottom and use it as a cup. Suddenly it all made perfect sense, and I grabbed the bottom portion with both hands as I brought the utensil to my mouth, anxious for my first drink.
The Cold, Sweet Taste
I’m not sure what I was expecting from the water, or even if I had anticipated anything. I was, however, very pleasantly surprised. The drink was much colder than expected, and it was so good. I must have emptied the dipper because I remember trying to go back into the bucket for another round.
Note that I said “try,” because suddenly I was reminded that my cousin was still there. They quickly plucked the dipper from my grip, and I had to wait while they took their turn. Soon enough it was back in my hands, and I remember both of us drinking to our mutual satisfaction.
The water was excellent, and I had not before or ever since had a better drink of water. It was so cold and clear yet had a slightly sweet taste to it. That wasn’t the last time I sipped from that well, but that first time was the best.
My grandfather has long since passed on after living to a respectable age of 96. The homestead is still in the family, and that hand dug Appalachian well still sits on the property. I keep meaning to visit the place and try a fresh drink from it. I know it just won’t be the same anymore. But in my vivid memories, it is still the finest drink ever.