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New Fangled Water Systems on the Farm (c. 1900)

By dhowell - Posted on 30 November 2013

Since writing the description of my grandfather's house for the Historical Society Calendar this year, I have become interested in why he built parts of his house and his farm buildings in the manner that he did. Specifically, I have often wondered who designed the water system for the house and for the farm buildings. I suspect he knew rather in detail what he wanted and hired workers to complete the projects.

The water system in the house depended on rain water and since this was stored in a cistern it was often called cistern water. Eaves troughs were constructed to drain from all sides of the house into the masonry cistern which was built into a corner of the basement. The exterior walls in a corner provided half the enclosure; stone walls two feet thick were built to complete the rectangle. The inside surface of all walls was plastered to make them waterproof.


Before electric water pumps became available another part of the system was built within a small room on the second floor. It was called a tank room because a galvanized tank was installed there. The bottom of the tank was about three feet above the upstairs floor level. Thus, all plumbing fixtures in the house were below the water level in this tank. This assured constant water pressure. Some of the eves were designed to fill this tank; there was also a hand operated force pump in the basement which was used to pump cistern water into the tank as needed.

The cook stove was also part of the water system. A range coil was installed next to the firebox and plumbed into the system. Pressured water kept this coil filled and when the range was fired, the heated water rose to fill the nearby range tank. From this tank heated cistern water was available as needed throughout the house.

Toilets were flushed from this system and the water was available to fill the hot water boiler used to heat the house. The only water need not filled by this system was drinking water. This was supplied from the well which was drilled just outside the back door for convenience. Another system was installed for drinking water and it served both the house and the farm buildings where the animals were housed.

A large windmill was installed above the well. It was built high enough to extend above the house roof so wind from any direction could operate it. This system used a pump which was made to force water under pressure. There was a control lever which could be switched to pump a pail of water for the house or to pump water to a large tank near the barn.

The barn tank was built of concrete and located under the drive ramp to the main barn floor. It probably held 10,000 gallons of water. The windmill could pump all day and not overfill the tank.

From the main tank pipes were laid two or three smaller tanks placed at lower levels. One of these was placed high enough to be used by cows and horses. The others were low enough to be used by sheep. About the only animals not served were hogs and poultry.

The system was relatively automatic if you remembered to set the windmill running. At each small tank a valve was placed at the end of the supply pipe near the bottom of the tank. From the valve a strong wire was attached to a float which was set at the water level desired. Pressure on the float shut off this valve at the water level desired; when animals drank water, the float dropped to allow water to re-fill the tank.

Both these water systems were energy efficient and easy to use. They were dependable through many years of use and needed virtually no attention. I think of this sometimes when the power goes off and we are "out of water."

Howard E. Parr
February 12, 1986