Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Job well done: Homesteaders had to work for water

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Dolly Farnsworth was at least 10 feet deep in a 4-by-4-foot hole when company arrived. Her husband, Jack, said, “I’ll go out and talk to them. I don’t want them to see you down there.” He ambled out to greet the visitor, careful not to acknowledge that his wife was standing at the bottom of the well she was digging, short-handled miner’s pick in hand and a small shovel and galvanized bucket at her feet.

In those days, it was considered unmanly to allow a woman to do such work, but some men recruited their wives because the women tended to be slimmer, Dolly said. A smaller digger could mean a smaller hole, which meant less material to be removed. Dolly also said she had difficulty hoisting the heavy bucket, so it made more sense for her to be in the hole.

Jack tried to keep Dolly’s presence a secret from the company — a B&C Auto representative from Anchorage — because he was worried about the ribbing he would get, she said.
But this was 1950, and frame houses like the one the Farnsworths were building were uncommon in Soldotna’s pioneering days — log homes being the standard accommodations. Jack could keep his visitor outside for only 10 or 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Dolly cooled her heels in the hole, leaning against the cribbed sides of the well, which had been carved bucket by bucket through tough gravel. Eventually, Dolly looked up to see two faces peering down, and Jack’s secret was out.

“He was very embarrassed,” Dolly said.

That was the end of the digging days for Dolly, now 86 and still living on the original Farnsworth homestead. With help from another man, the Farnsworths hit good water at 32 feet, and with a hand pump they were able to supply their basic water needs. When power came to the area, an electric pump was installed and kept the family in good water until they hooked up to city services in the 1970s.

Dee Stock tells a similar water-seeking tale. Like the Farnsworths, she and her husband, Bill, were digging their well indoors while they were completing their home. About 8 to 10 feet down, she was using a shovel and a crowbar to pound away at the exposed strata below her when Bill announced, “I think someone’s at the door.” He disappeared from the portal of light above her and walked to the other end of the house to check the identity of the company.

At that time, Bill was the foreman for the local Alaska Road Commission office, and at his door were “two of the Anchorage bigwigs,” Pete Bagoy and Ben Peterson.

“They brought some beers,” said Dee, now 90 and living in Utah, “and they sat and visited for two to three hours drinking and talking.”

Meanwhile, “I was cold and damp and getting madder all the time,” she said. “I yelled and screamed and hollered, and they didn’t even hear me.”

At one point, she said, she began to plot revenge.

“I was plotting anything I could think of.”

When the company finally departed, Bill returned to the top of the well.

“He was sorry,” Dee said, “and he just apologized and apologized. We had a few words.”

In the end, the well was complete at about 20 feet, but Dee did not return to the hole. “I helped,” she said, “but I didn’t get down in that well again.” Bill hired someone else to finish the job.

On the north side of Soldotna Creek, a third woman also dug for water. Marge Mullen, now 88, was excavating with a sawed-off clam shovel and an old coffee can and sending up buckets of till to her husband, Frank. Unlike Dee Stock and Dolly Farnsworth, however, Marge eventually completed all of the digging herself — down the narrow, cribbed shaft to a depth of 25 feet.

“I couldn’t do this all day, every day, because I had a family to take care of, you know,” she said. “Meanwhile, I had Soldotna Creek to get water from.”

For two or three years, the Mullens hauled buckets of water directly from the creek, while most early Soldotna residents drew their water year-round from a community spring on the south side of the creek, at the end of an ARC road in what is now Soldotna Creek Park.

The few residents who owned vehicles could drive to the spring, while others had to tote it by hand or on their backs. Everyone conserved in some way: outhouses, infrequent bathing, communal laundry days.

Marge said the work on the well was “kind of forbidding when I first started out, but then I got braver on the whole thing, knowing the final results would be a great help for me.”

The view up the shaft could be daunting. “I could see the sky and treetops,” she said. “But it was a great day when I got out of there and saw a little bit of liquid in the bottom, and it was on the sand layer. So that was pretty exciting, and then to go back the next time and find that it had filled up a little bit further.”

By the mid-1950s, well drillers, such as Kenny Carver and Jess Shelman, were appearing in the area, and the era of hand-dug wells quickly faded. Frank and Betty Kraxberger arrived in the early ’60s, and have been finding water for local folks ever since.

The Mullens eventually replaced their hand-dug well with a drilled one. Now, from her home along the Kenai River, Marge draws her water from a well 157 feet deep. And she doesn’t need a coffee can or clam shovel to do it.

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