It was a long distance to water for the settlers on the table lands of Nebraska. If they went straight down it was from one hundred to three hundred feet of hard digging. If they went across country it was sometimes five or six miles to a running stream. Frequently they hauled water in barrels from the streams during the first year, putting in a sod crop to live on and digging in the well every hour they could spare. As they could not afford machinery these early wells were dug by hand. A stout rope and bucket with a home made crank and windlass brought the dirt up from the bottom. Sometimes this was turned by the mother and children while the father pounded away at the bottom with pick and spade. Sometimes the well went through layers of soft and sandy soil which would cave in and bury the digger below. To prevent this a box or curbing was made with boards strongly braced inside and just large enough to fit the well. This held the wall of the soft layers firmly in place. Where the wall was hard it did not need curbing.
Digging a deep well was slow, painful and dangerous work. Months passed while the family dug and turned the windlass and wondered how much deeper the water lay. What a day of celebration when the digger struck the final blow and water flowed in about his feet! How glad the children were! All the neighbors came to taste the water and rejoice at the family's good luck. Water, common water, which people throw carelessly away seemed to them as precious as gold.
When the well was very deep, pulling the water up by hand was too slow work, so a large wooden drum and tackle was built alongside the well. Horses or oxen were hitched to a pole fastened to the drum and driven around it in a circle. As the drum turned it wound up a long stout rope and at the other end of the rope was a barrel of water coming slowly to the top from the cool depths of the deep well.
During the drought of 1890 to 1895 many settlers on the high plains of western Nebraska left the claims where they had worked so hard and the wells they had toiled so hard to dig because they had no crops. The grass and weeds grew up about the wells, the frame and windlass disappeared and there was a hidden open hole hundreds of feet deep. Such an open well in Custer County was the scene of a thrilling experience. The story of it was told in the Custer County Beacon of September 5,1895, by the man who lived through it, Mr. F. W. Carlin. It is given for the most part in his own words:
"While driving through the country about fifteen miles northwest of Broken Bow on the evening of August 14th, I found I had taken the wrong track and driven up to some old sod buildings. I turned my team around and started toward what looked like a good road, when one of my horses seemed to step into a place. I got out of my wagon and started alongside the team to be sure that the road was all right when, without a moment's notice, I became aware of the fact that I had stepped into an old well and was going down like a shot out of a gun.
"I placed my feet close together, stretched my arms straight over my head and said, "O God, have mercy on me," and I honestly believe that saved my life; but I went down, down, and it seemed to me I would never reach the bottom. The farther I went, the faster I went, and never seemed to touch the sides at all.
"I supposed, of course, it would kill me when I struck the bottom, but God had heard my prayer. I struck in the mud and water, which completely covered me over. I was considerably stunned, but was able to straighten up and get my head above water. I scrambled around and finally pulled my legs from the mud at the bottom and stood on my feet in the water, which came just up to my arms. I was very cold and I tried a number of times to get out of the water, only to fall back. The curbing was somewhat slimy. I finally managed to break off a little piece of board and found a crack in which I managed to fasten it and perched myself upon it until morning.
"While sitting there I heard my team running away. In its remaining by the well was my only hope of rescue, for I was aware of the fact that I was at least a mile and a half from the nearest house and that no one knew that I was there.
"There I sat until morning. It was about nine o'clock when I fell in and I was drenched and plastered with mud. The only serious injury I received was a badly sprained ankle which gave me great pain. I also had a sore place in my back, which I found a number of days afterwards was a broken rib.
"As soon as daylight appeared I began to look around and take in the situation. In looking up it seemed to be at least one hundred feet to the top. I learned afterwards that it was exactly 143 feet. It was curbed in places with a curb about three feet square. There would be a place curbed for about six to sixteen feet and then there would be a place not curbed at all. The curbing was perfectly tight, not a crack between the boards that I could get my fingers into, and covered with a slimy mud. I at once concluded that my only chance for rescue was my knife, if it had not fallen out of my pocket while floundering in the mud. So, thrusting my hand into my pocket, -- there it was and a good one, too. I took it and began cutting footholes in the sides of the curbing. It was very slow, but sure. I never went back a foot after I had gained it. When I would get to the top of a curbing I took the board that I had cut out and made me a seat in one corner and in this way I think I got up about fifty feet the first day.
"Some time in the afternoon I came to a curbing which I thought I could not get through. It was of solid one by six inch boards, closely fitted together and not less than sixteen feet to the top of it. I made myself a good seat, fixing myself as comfortable as possible, and concluded that I must stay there and await assistance or die there. I stayed there all the next night and slept half of the time, for the night did not seem very long. I would have been quite comfortable had I not been so wet and cold and my feet pained me terribly. The greatest drawback was that I had to do most of my climbing on one foot.
"I remained at that point the greater part of the next forenoon, calling often for help. One thing was in my favor. I was neither hungry nor thirsty. I began to give up all hopes. I thought of my wife and little boy, who were always so glad to see me when I came home from a trip. I thought how the little fellow would never see his papa or run to meet him when he returned home again.
"That was too much. I made up my mind to get out or die in the attempt. So I took a piece of board, put some sand on it, and got the point of my knife good and sharp on the sand. Then I began cutting away the curbing and making one foothole after another. I cut, climbing higher and higher, and was at last on the top of the curbing. From there I would have been comfortable if my feet had not hurt me so badly. But I cut holes in the clay for my hands and feet with my knife, and finally got within sixteen feet of the top.
"Right there I had the worst obstacle I had met yet. It was a round curbing four feet high, perfectly smooth inside. The earth was washed out around it until the curb was only held from dropping by a little peg on one side. I knew if I tried to go up through it, it was pretty sure to break loose and go to the bottom with me. So my only chance was to go between the curb and the wall. This I was fortunate in doing. By going to work and digging away the wall in half an hour I had a hole large enough to let me pass through. After that it was but a short job to reach the top, which I did, and lay for some time exhausted.
"Then I knelt down and thanked Almighty God for sparing my life, as I prayed for him to do, time and again during the two days and nights that I had been in the well.
A Typical Frontier Well and House.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)
"But my troubles were not yet at an end. I was a mile and a half from a house with a foot which I could not step on. I cut some large weeds and made out to hobble and crawl to the road about forty rods distant, and there I lay until nearly sundown looking for a team that never came. At last I gave up looking for anyone and started to crawl on my hands and knees to the house, but I soon gave out and had to lie out another night.
"In the morning I felt somewhat better. Starting out again I finally arrived at the home of Charles Francis just at daylight. I was given food and drink, after being without them two days and three nights.
"My team was found the next day after I fell in the well. The man who found them took them to a justice of the peace, filed an estray notice, and turned them into his pasture. He thus complied with the law and by so doing took away the last chance for me to be found."
The story of this escape from an open well was told in the Nebraska legislature of 1897 by Senator Beal, of Custer County. The result was that an act was passed compelling land-owners to fill such wells on their property to the top with dirt or the county would do it at their expense. This law has remained on our statute books ever since.