Carry Water

The Plainfield Aquaduct Company

A couple of Saturdays ago, a group of intrepid explorers investigated the springs and the route of the pipeline that supplied water to the center of Plainfield from 1816 to 1971. Plainfield being an exceedingly rural sort of a place, we mostly have our own wells, as they did back in the days of settlement. We drill them hundreds of feet down which makes them very reliable. But not around 1800. Then, if you were lucky, you’d have a spring to harness but if you didn’t you dug what’s now called a “shallow well” to ground water, lined it with stones, and hoped it would rain. And you or your dependents would carry water to get it into your house.

Right around the turn of the nineteenth century aqueducts became all the rage. If you’re like me, the word evokes an image of a Roman-built edifice with arches crossing a valley to supply water to the town’s lead pipes – that some say became the downfall of the empire (I have read they actually knew lead could scramble your brain). But what they called an aqueduct in the British/North American World just after the Revolution is really simply a water pipe or water main. So that folks who happened to have a spring that was higher than their house could run an aqueduct, which they ingeniously crafted of wood rather than lead, and have cold running water. Sure beats hauling and carrying. Usually you had to be rich for that.

But not in early nineteenth-century Plainfield, which was an up-and-coming industrial town on a well-used crossroads where down to earth citizens were rather consciously building a socially feasible economy. The crossroads at the center had a couple of blacksmith shops (service stations, really) a store, and even two doctors (!), all of whose houses, shops, and yards with animals abutted each other closely. And no springs just there even though Plainfield is lousy with them otherwise.

The germ theory of disease had not been proven yet, but they did try to separate what goes in from what comes out for man and beast. Which makes shallow wells a problem if you’re also using a privy and you have some horses and other livestock not to mention chickens running all over the place. Add to that the drought of summer and autumn and water evidently became a bit of an issue right there in the thick of things.

When Dr. Barney Torrey, storekeeper John Mack, Isaiah Shaw, Blacksmith Lt. Levi Cook and Dr. Jacob Porter got together and formed the Plainfield Aquaduct (sic) Company in 1816, they did not, like we who are working to get fiber-optic cable to this town, set aside pots of money for construction. From their neighbor Ebenezer Nash they had a deed to a small triangle of land with springs half a mile up the road, they talked about maintenance and repair of the wooden pipe, and they talked about how to divvy up the water. But apparently they’d already installed the pipe. It’s handy to live in a place where people know how to actually make things happen.

Likely 6-8 foot hemlock logs were bored with a long auger, one end hollowed out and the other sharpened with a gigantic pencil sharpener, called a Sheep’s Head in the opinion of some, which I have not been able to corroborate. The logs were then pushed tightly into each other in a ditch carefully routed uphill to the spring. The spring was dug out, a housing erected to contain it, and voila, running water was achieved for the next 150 years.

Sort of. It took of course a lot of doing to keep it going. They were a small group of households that slowly expanded as the population density of the center increased over the next 40 years. They met every year, they paid various people to do maintenance and repair, they increasingly worked on divvying the water up exactly. Periodically they made new contracts, with the “Gentlemen” as they identified themselves on deeds, generally paying and taking about twice as much as the “Yeomen” and Blacksmiths. They had a large cistern at the center of town that was fire protection for everyone and water for the horses that came around. It was an excellent case of the kind of enlightened self-interest and can-do Americanism that people say made this country work.

(I should note that 1816, the year in which the PAC was created, the Town Meeting also decided to auction off the maintenance of the poor to the lowest bidder and was working to “bind out” an orphan girl. That was also part of making the country work)

And that was the last time Plainfield had an independent utility. From there on, the Town Meeting was careful to ‘”invite” or “permit” companies to lay railroad (1848) or much later set up telephone poles (1905-7), provided they paid for the set-up, maintenance, and running of the system. But the railroad never came and the town did not end up expanding and the Aquaduct Company kept supplying a small number of closely-spaced households in a tiny backwater.

In addition to laying pipe, the men and women (yes, women were members as well) of the Plainfield Aquaduct Company knew how to have meetings and create contracts and talk until they come to some kind of agreement – and they were definitely concerned with not spending too much money, which probably could be said for most of Yankeedom.

By the early part of the twentieth century, they haggled for some years with the town over how to pay together for a new (third generation) cistern. The second one they’d put in themselves. It never happened and in time the decrepit cistern was used as a collecting station for milk cans, which they wanted to protest but couldn’t because it really was on town land, and in the nineteen-fifties, when it was no longer necessary because automobiles drink much less water than horses, they petitioned the town to take it away.

What stands out to me is that these were civic-minded folks who were trying to make things work. And also that they became small-minded and fearful from years and years of pinching pennies. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Plainfield was the first town in Western Massachusetts to clear all the hurdles for a new adventure in communications utilities called Wired West that is going to bring us the fiber-optic cable that in turn is going to salvage us and our rural lifestyle in the 21st century. Verizon et. al. were not interested in our permitting or inviting them to exploit us, so we’re creating a utility that hearkens back to the Plainfield Aquaduct Company in its “can-do” tackling of the needs of an expanding region.

I’d like to think that the various votes that were taken, 160-3-1 at the Town Meeting and 134-10 on debt exclusion, are about an enlightened sense of where we can go in the future if we work together, and not about streaming TV, but I suppose I’ll it anyway so long as it carries the water to everyone’s house.

But that was after I told a group of intrepid explorers about the  Plainfield Aquaduct Company talk and we took our brochures to go in search of the bubbling of springs, a spring box, rusty pipes lying around rusting some more, seeing how the pipe ran along stone walls not on the side of maples, sighting (newer) wells along the straight line where the pipe once ran, and seeing the ditch where, one of the former road bosses reports, he dug up the pipe after ’71. Along the way we ran into another former road boss raking in the cemetery, and he told us he plowed up the pipe in the field one spring (there were cows on the field this time). Yup, rocky ledge so close to the surface brings the springs, but also makes it tough to bury a pipe deeper than 10 inches. Drilled wells are not such a bad idea even though they take electricity to operate. And then we need to somehow get together to make the electricity happen. We’re doing that too now via solar contracts. I’m upbeat about where we’re going with this. Do more together and you can rely more on each other and vice versa. No woman is an island.

Sources

  • Excerpts from the Records of the Plainfield Aquaduct Company, books I-IV (1816-1975), transcribed by Arvilla L. Dyer. The originals were not recognized for what they were and discarded. Property of Plainfield Historical Society.
  • Town Meeting Notes, Records of the Town Clerk of Plainfield, MA, Book 1-5.

Note: Photos for illustration. We’re not talking journalism or art  here. Some of the photos were taken on an earlier PAC walk, and some on a scouting trip.

Tell me what you think!