I grew up on an 80-acre farm five miles due north of Judsonia. My grandfather, John Henry Scarborough, had bought the farm in 1907. My parents were William and Lottie Scarborough. One of my earliest memories is of a year in the late 1930s when we had a particularly dry spell. We were accustomed to dry summers because annual droughts were a way of life in central Arkansas. The sandy, hilly land was always thirsty, and the lack of rain added to the burdens of poor soil, insects and hard work. Like most of our neighbors, our water supply came from a dug well, one that was about 20 feet deep and three feet in diameter and was walled up with rocks. There was a frame over it to accommodate a pulley and rope to draw water with a 10-quart galvanized bucket.
That summer all the little streams on our farm that the cows normally drank from dried up, and our herd had to drink from our well. It was a burden to have to water the cattle from the well. It seemed as if those cows were bottomless, they could hold so much. One early fall day my parents were picking cotton down by a wooden area of our farm as I played in the shade of a sweet gun tree, making “toad frog houses” with my bare feet in the dirt and throwing sweet gum balls that fell from the tree. I was quite young, because only very small children were allowed the luxury of playing in the shade while their parents worked. Dad and Mama had discussed looking for water. I don’t know what gave Dad the idea to dig for water, except that facing impossible obstacles was common for farmers in those days, and they had to have ingenuity and be resourceful to survive.
It was nearly lunch time when they got their rows picked and came to the wagon to weigh the cotton and empty their pick sacks. Dad walked out to a nearby peach tree where he found the right kind of forked stick.
It was a small one, and he cut it with his pocketknife so that it looked like a “Y.” When he came back to where Mama and I were, all three of us went a few yards out to a low wooded area that usually stayed wet, but then it was powder dry. Mama grasped the witching stick in her hands by the two handles of the “Y,” held the point of it straight out and walked slowly around in an area 20 feet or so in diameter. As she walked the point of the stick began to pull downward – steadily, deliberately. You could almost sense that a power in the earth was drawing the point of that stick to a certain place beside a small persimmon sprout. After a few minutes of seeing the stick come down at the same spot no matter which direction she came from, she stuck the stick up in the ground beside the sprout. As we walked to the house for lunch, I pondered the morning’s experience. My mother was the embodiment of everything a good mother should be, gentle, hard working, and fun to be with. She gave a sense of love and security to my childhood days. But this was something new for me. I had never seen her or anyone else witch for water. It made me look at her in a different light, with amazement, a new respect, and just a twinge of fear.
After a lunch of vegetable soup that Mama had left simmering on the wood stove that morning, corn bread and canned peaches, Dad got the shovel and we went back to the spot where Mama had left the witching stick. Dad took the shovel in his leather-brown, calloused hands and thrust the shovel again and again into the dry, hard ground with his worn work shoe… After a few shovelfuls the dirt turned a dark, wet brown! In a few minutes we were amazed to see a trickle of water.
After he dug the hole two or three feet deep we watched it fill up with clear, sweet water. We dipped out some with a cup and drank it, grateful for the cool refreshment. Dad emptied the hole with a bucket, and we marveled that it was soon full again. He dug the hole about six feet deep, and soon the bigger hole was full. He drove the cows to the hole and let them drink their fill. Later he put a fence around three sides and left the mouth of the spring open for the cattle to drink from. At last the family was freed from watering them from our well. For years our cattle drank from the spring.
My parents were not superstitious, and not given to sensational happenings. They were hard-working, God-fearing people, but witching for water and digging into the dry ground seemed quite natural for them to do. But for me the whole thing was a miracle – from Dad’s idea to dig – Mama witching for water – and then actually finding water. It was a miracle spring of water! vvv
The author is an author of Bald Knob and Judsonia histories who lives at Judsonia. See a related article, “Water Witching in the Ozarks,” at www.tuppenceworth.ie/biglife/dowsing