Thankful for plumbing

Farm Forum

‘Tis is the season when we traditionally pause to give thanks. This year, most Americans are grateful that the ordeal of this last election is finally over. Many have expressed a level of relief normally associated with removing an extremely tight pair of shoes at the end of a dear-God-will-this-never-end type of day.

Speaking of stuff that we’d rather not think about, I am personally thankful for the miracle of modern plumbing.

This convenience may seem minor for those who have always had access to indoor facilities. These people are, by my reckoning, a bunch of pampered weenies.

When homesteaders first arrived out here on the barren prairie, among the first things they did was to dig two holes, one to draw water from and one to poop into. This system was still in use when I was born.

All the water for all our farm animals – including our twenty thirsty-as-a-German-at-Oktoberfest dairy cows – came from the well that had been dug by hand by the two Norwegian brothers who homesteaded the place. The hole was four feet square, unfathomably deep and cased with concrete. It boggled my mind to imagine the amount of manual labor that was sunk into sinking that well.

By the time I came along, an electric pump jack had taken over pumping duties from the windmill. This was a huge improvement because – this is difficult to believe – there can be days when our prairie winds don’t blow. On still days, all of the farm’s water had to be drawn from the depths of the earth with a hand pump. Thanks to the electric pump jack, I grew up thinking that we were coddled.

Several yards from our farmhouse, perched over another hole in the ground, was our privy. To say that the outhouse was drafty would be an epic understatement; frostbitten cheeks were a real possibility in the wintertime. A person didn’t go to the outhouse unless they really had to go. And once there, nobody dawdled over a copy of “Better Homes and Privies” magazine.

But the privy also had its downsides. For example, one summer day a particular little boy was visiting the outhouse when he was startled by the buzzing of angry bees down below. His urge to go was quickly resolved and he now has a peculiar phobia regarding being stung on the heinie whenever he alights on the throne.

A cistern beneath our farmhouse provided household water. A creaky hand pump coughed up water held in that hole in the ground. The ancient pump often had to be primed and I wondered what would happen if we didn’t have enough water for this purpose. Would our desiccated skeletons be found clutching the handle of that stubborn old pump?

Our farmhouse was equipped with a system of eave troughs that carried rainwater from the roof to the cistern. The undependable nature of rainfall made us extremely careful with our water usage. My large family were water conservation devotees long before conserving water became a fad. I still find it difficult to shower more than once a week.

But water wasn’t the only thing that the rain and the snow brought to the cistern. Dust and dirt and other incidentals (such as bird doots) also made their way into our subterranean tank.

Each fall, we would muscle the heavy concrete lid off the cistern and descend into its creepy, cave-like depths to clean it. I marveled at the skill the homesteaders displayed in building the cistern’s fieldstone walls, which had been coated with plaster in an attempt to make them waterproof. The plaster couldn’t keep earthworms out, so I had my doubts regarding its ability to keep water in.

One autumn an inspection revealed that a tree root had snaked through the cistern’s wall, creating a large crack. This was troubling news for a family of water conservation fanatics.

Martin, our Norwegian bachelor farmer neighbor, was summoned to patch the plaster. He was old enough to have known the homesteaders and thus possessed crucial cistern restoration skills.

I was selected to assist him. I held a dim, flickering flashlight as Martin excavated the tree root and troweled plaster into the crack it had made. Martin muttered under his breath as he worked, the ever-present unfiltered Lucky Strike bobbing on his lower lip. Cigarette ash fell onto the cistern floor we had so meticulously cleaned that morning.

I didn’t say anything about the ash. I figured that it wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things and might even provide some valuable micronutrients.

So that’s why I’m grateful for modern plumbing. Plus, I have never been bothered by bees while resting on the porcelain chair. At least not yet.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.