Running Water by Ted Harrison

macewan pump

I have no idea how many rural homes were without running water in North Carolina in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I know there were at least two in my home county: my Grandfather’s and my uncle’s. They lived on a dirt road some 75 yards apart. Farming a tract of land together and striving to be self-sufficient they raised cotton, wheat, corn, kept some cows and pigs. Wood cut from timber on the land served for heat and cooking. Each family had a vegetable garden. My uncle raised watermelons and cantaloupes and extra patches of produce that he would peddle door to door in town. “Hearts of Gold”, one of the cantaloupe varieties, was my father’s favorite.

Poppa, as my grandfather was called, was a man set in his ways. Allowing his daughter to marry my father was a major concession. Poppa thought you could see too much of the whites of my father’s eyes. Poppa required three hot meals each day.

With weather beaten wood and a tin roof, Poppa had a typical rural farm home; only the modern conveniences of a telephone and electricity in the house. Maw Maw cooked on a wood stove. The only other source of heat was the “fire room” wood stove. By 1950, my family had moved to another part of North Carolina so visits to Poppa’s and Maw Maw’s were less frequent. This was a time when most people associated long distance telephone calls with death, sickness, accidents and similar personal tragedies, so mother placed very few calls to the crank telephone that hung in the front hall at Poppa’s, although periodically she would telephone her step-sisters, who still lived near my grandparents.


A three-cent stamp sent the letters back and forth between mother and Maw Maw. So it was a letter that brought us the news Uncle Richard was going to put plumbing in his house. This was welcome news to Mother’s siblings. Running water. From a faucet. Into a sink, a washbasin, a bathtub—no more hand pumping cool water from the deep underground into a bucket. Bucket to house. Water into the wood stove reservoir to keep a little humidity in the air. Water into a pan on the stove to cook; water to wash dishes or human hands, feet and body. No more trips to the outhouse in the way outback for Uncle, Aunt, cousins rain or shine, July or January. Or to empty the “slop jar” as the porcelain bucket was called that stayed under the bed, covered with newspapers until morning. Uncle Richard took things one step further: he broached the idea of running water with Poppa.

Past the days of plowing with his mules across the fields, Poppa had other things on his mind. Around this time a series of survey stakes stretched across part of his land. Surveying several possible routes for a superhighway that would bypass the town, the state had put the stakes out. The stakes cut right through the site of his favorite strawberry patch. Poppa was plagued with worry about losing part of his land.

In his younger days, Poppa had been known to walk to town. He owned a car at one point, but gave up driving because of a minor accident that happened when he failed to yield the right of way. With this history, he sure wasn’t happy with the idea that cars might be zooming by within sight of his barn. He need not have worried, though; the superhighway followed a different route and took years to become a reality. (For that matter, the route went so close to the south of town that it could hardly be called a bypass at all.)

Discussions about running water for Poppa’s house are lost in the vapors. No doubt Maw Maw kept her usual quiet and personal counsel on the idea. She was a farmer’s daughter, a farmer’s wife; a help mate. If she longed for running water in the house, no one ever knew.

Work on the plumbing for Uncle Richard’s house started. An electric pump with a switch replaced the up and down motion of the old fashioned pump handle. Ditches were dug for the pipes that would carry the water into the house. The kitchen sink was put in place. A bath room: indoor toilet, tub, wash basin, water heater—those then-modern conveniences that most of today’s homes have in duplicate or triplicate.

Word came that Poppa was considering the idea. It seemed the economical thing to do – to have work done at his house while the work progressed at Uncle Richard’s. So he agreed. Running water was going to become a reality for Poppa and Maw Maw.

Some months after the work was finished, we went to visit Poppa and Maw Maw. The old man, only about five feet, seven inches tall and weighing about the same as one of today’s runway models, was happy to show my Daddy what had been done. I went along as Poppa led us to the well house.

Sitting where the old pump had been was a large square wooden box, about the size of two huge old oak stumps if you put them side by side. The box had a thick wooden door about knee height, and was insulated to prevent the water from freezing in winter. The walls and door were about four inches thick. What a sight it was to behold!

Another sight came when Poppa took a bucket, held it under the spigot, and turned the handle. Water flowed into the bucket, with such little effort. Running water had come to Poppa and Maw Maw’s house. Well, near the house anyway. Sure, the hand pump was gone. But there were no pipes running through the yard to the inside of the house. The electric pump was as much modern life as there was to be. The spigot was Poppa’s running water.

Poppa died a few years later, long before the superhighway was finished. But with a bucket held under the spigot at the well house, there was running water.