Wooden Water Pumps

By Scott Houting.

Title image: Water pump at Peter Wentz Farmstead, Worcester, PA.

Visitors to the Peter Wentz Farmstead will occasionally ask the simple question, “How did the families living in the house get their water for everyday chores and drinking?”

The simple answer is, of course, from a well dug outside the house. However, considering that wells in the 1700s or later could reach a depth of 60 feet in southeastern Pennsylvania, the bigger question is how did the families extract the water from the well to pour into buckets or water troughs? The answer was the wood-stock water pump [a solid log bored out to become a pipe].

Prior to mechanical pumps, powered by hydraulics or electricity, families relied upon the principle of vacuum or suction to draw water through pumps from ground water supplies. The central feature for achieving this was the mechanical piston valve of the wood-stock water pump.

The construction of the pump started at the farm well site, usually outside the summer kitchen. Hired craftsmen, known as pump makers, worked onsite due to the sheer weight of the pump material and unforeseen requirements needed to complete each individual pump.

Pump at White Horse Inn, Douglassville, PA.

The pump maker started his job by selecting the proper length log of white oak or walnut, due to the water durability of these two hardwoods. Once the log was selected and the outer bark removed, the work of building the pump could begin. Hand planes and draw knives would shape the log into the typical octagonal shape common in the Philadelphia region. Once the log was finished on the exterior, the craftsmen would begin to bore through the log to form the open center. Two men turned the heavy augers to ensure a straight, centered hole. Adding the blacksmith-forged iron handle and side water spout completed the pump construction.

Before placing the finished stock pump over the well opening, the pump maker would shape and bore one or two additional logs to serve as pipes depending upon the depth of the well. These log pipes would be tapered at one end to fit inside each other. Iron bands around each tapered end, added strength to the fittings. The bottom of the lowest log pipe would include a screen filter and often rest on a flat stone placed at the extreme bottom of the well. The screen helped to prevent sediment and dirt from being sucked into the clean extracted water.

Pump with decorative features in an unidentified PA Dutch village (probably Berks or Schuylkill County), photographed by H. Winslow Fegley, circa 1905. The man in the photo is unidentified. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.

A mechanical device called a hoisting gin would lower the water pipes and pump into the well. The pipes would be guided by ropes and pullies to set squarely and firm in the well. With each pump and pipes weighing upwards of two hundred pounds each, the process of placing the pump over the well required both human strength and mechanical accuracy. The finished installed pump demanded straight vertical installment for the water to pump under good pressure. The pump was completed by a wood cap placed on top of the pump. These caps were often decorated with a wood finial or other device. The cap covered the inside parts of the pump and added a decorative touch.

The wood-stock water pump operated on the principle of vacuum. The main mechanical feature of the pump was the piston valve assembly. The piston was a carved wood cylinder, bored out in the center to allow the water to enter. A leather band tacked around the wood piston provided a tight fit inside the well to keep water from falling back down. The piston was attached to a long iron rod, called the piston rod, which was attached to the exterior handle.

Pump at an old farm in Chester County, PA.

Operation of the pump was quite basic. When the operator brought the exterior handle up, the piston rod and attached piston dropped through the pipes into the water. Water pressure below the piston forced the piston to open, allowing water to flow through the hollow piston into the pump chamber. The downstroke on the handle raised the piston with the drawn water. As the downstroke continued, water was increasingly drawn upward through the pump until the volume of water flowed into the side spout and out into a bucket.

By 1860, new technology began replacing the hand-crafted wood pumps with factory mass-produced manufactured pumps. Cast-Iron replaced wood as the preferred pump material. Daniel Halladay’s newly invented windmill in 1854 further led to the decline of the wood pump. The early decades of the 1900s brought rural electrification to the countryside of America. The era of the 18th century wood-stock water pump was over.

Scott Houting is Curator at Peter Wentz Farmstead, Worcester, PA.

2 thoughts on “Wooden Water Pumps

  1. Very informative article. My question on this topic has always been “How did they dig the well?” Considering the rapid infiltration of ground water, someone must have been bailing at a furious rate as those wells often fill to the top overnight. The well pit, of course, tapers toward the bottom and there may be only a few feet across..but the whole way down it is lined with dressed stone, so they must have started laying the stone after the well pit was dug…often dug through shale. What a way to make a living. Is there anything known about well digging?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Wood brings up some good questions about digging the well. I grew up in a house with a 20 foot hand dug well. It was 10 or 12 feet across not that bad for the guys to slop around in the bottom after they hit water. Maybe it was dug in a dry August? Or maybe start digging when the soil is still damp and easier to dig and then finish in August? This well was then lined with stone from the bottom up, that must have been quite the challenge.

    Scott, you mention 60 foot hand dug wells. Now that had to be rare. The effort required would have been enormous. Maybe one for several houses somewhat close together? Or were there tricks that made this not as bad as it appears?

    Like

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