Left in Andover: Bewitching water in the 1980s

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Hard by the original cellar hole on the West Place – as our deed identifies the southern section of my family’s Popplewood Farm – is where my husband John Specker and I decided to build a “real” house, in 1988.

We had dithered through the decade living in cabins near that same spot. But, with two young daughters, what had seemed like paradise suddenly looked like a shack with no running water.

Our ‘Pear Tree Meadow’ outhouse.

Our cabins came with pedigrees of their own. One had provided shelter to several different hermits throughout my childhood, then to a parade of hippie types through the 1960s, including me and my siblings as we each experimented with living on the land. In the late 1960s, my teenage brother set up here on his own while attending high school in Chester.

The potable water source for the cabins was the original dug well uphill in the woods. An old lead pipe led directly down to the old cellar hole. In order to keep the water flowing for any length of time, it was necessary to force pump a bucket of water back up the pipe, a ritual punctuating the various occupants’ comings and goings.

Before settling in the cabin together in Andover in 1979, John and I had spent time in Weathersfield, where we met Bill Snide. Bill was wise, generous and curious, a real old-time Vermonter who was also interested in us younger alternative 1960s types.

The author, mid-1970s, force pumping water with her dad in the Pear Tree Meadow. In the background, a barn built during the hippie years, that has sadly since fallen in.

He regaled us with tales of his days on the road crew, such as the time when he jumped from the seat of the snowplow onto the back of a buck that was running alongside it. He may have eaten it for dinner that night as well, who knows.

When he discovered that I was from Andover, he enjoyed telling me about his time transporting travelers by stage from Chester Depot to Rowell’s Inn in winter – and how frozen his hands would be by the end of that ordeal.

About the first thing John did upon arriving here was pull out as much of the lead water pipe as possible. By 1988, when we broke ground for our house, he had hauled on his back thousands of buckets of drinking water directly from the well, and from our frog pond for bathing and washing. We needed a real, dependable source of running water for our next phase.

Bill Snide loved John’s fiddle playing. Seeking to reciprocate by sharing one of his own unique talents, he came over to do some water witching for us, to pinpoint the ideal location for our new well.

John Specker doing the family wash, 1989, Pear Tree Meadow cabin.

Whatever the skepticism in scientific circles over this age-old divining method, Bill betrayed no hesitation as he led us into the woods above our house site, forked stick in hand.

Subsequently, John dug a trench in the spot Bill told him to and there it still lies, mucky in even the driest of seasons.

Ultimately, a more expeditious location for the truck to drill turned out to be in the dooryard of the new house. Sadly, we were never able to put Bill’s old time Vermont water divination to the test.

Bill Snide, demonstrating the art of dousing for water by our new foundation, 1988.

I am still grateful every day for my running water and indoor plumbing. From my vantage point inside a modern house, I am also grateful for the time we lived without these amenities, and to know what it means to live closer to the earth, embracing rather than fearing those moonlight forays outside. But I can’t say I would have done it if I’d had the choice!

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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