Letter, Jan. 31, 2014
Date posted: January 30, 2014
invaluable to traveler
Re: Ringley column
Tom Ringley’s column about Madge Austin Wade that commented on some of the etiquette and toughness of pioneer life coupled with the photograph of the men loading snow to store in a cistern (The Sheridan Press, Jan. 28) prompted me to add a little something along that vein.
Hardly any of the old cisterns have survived, and if they have they are pretty dangerous. If you ever came across one and studied the construction of this bottle-shaped cavern you might wonder how it was built. It appears that most began as a pit 15 to 25 feet deep. Many had a cement or plaster floor. Next, rocks, mostly small flagstones, were laid in a circle with each course growing smaller in circumference as the walls grew higher. Plaster or cement was packed between the stones and excavated dirt was poured back in around the outside of the wall. By the time the cistern was done, the only visible part would be an opening 2 to 3 feet wide at the surface. I found evidence that horse-pulled “scrapers” made of planks resembling a land leveler were used to scrape snow from the surrounding prairie, and a piece of stump about the size of a chopping block equipped with a very long handle was used to tamp the snow that was dumped into the hole. Some cisterns were strategically located near a water course where spring runoff could be diverted with the aid of removable wooden dams.
I will leave it to the reader’s imagination to ponder how the water was drawn out, what it might have contained, and how it tasted. Yes, those folks were tough, but if a thirsty traveler in those days was offered a drink, and to fill his canteen, you can bet he was more than appreciative especially if he was cognizant of the effort it took to have that water.