Yesterday morning I put out hay and then tried the newly-repaired water hydrant in the barn paddock. The handle, neatly wrapped in heat tape, would not move. At 14° below zero it was frozen again.
I could feel a pulse start to tap in my temple.
Winter water issues have been a problem since I first got my own livestock back in 2004. Frozen pipes, frozen troughs, cracked buckets. In the years that I rented barn space, I had to fill my water tank with a 25-foot hose. Though I set up a pulley system to hoist the hose into a tree to allow it to drain after each use, my family still stumbled regularly over coils of hose thawing in dirty puddles on our kitchen floor.
When I was finally able to build my own barn and install not one, but two frost-free water hydrants, I was sure my water troubles were over. Nope.
One of the reasons I love old rural memoirs is that my day-to-day experience often seems to have more in common with a bygone era. It’s comforting to read about someone else’s trials with escaping pigs or balky heifers — even if that someone has been lying in the churchyard for decades. Recently I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite of these memoirs, Green Mountain Farm by Elliott Merrick.
Merrick moved to northern Vermont in 1934. A few years later, in winter, his water line froze.
“Zack lent me his team, pung, and eight milk cans. I spent a couple of bitter days in January filling the cistern from a spring-fed water trough about a quarter mile away. The water slopped and sheathed me in ice, but it didn’t seem so bad, because most everyone was having trouble with water that year, and many farmers’ water lines were frozen.”
The “sheathed in ice” description reminded me of November 2008, when my elderly friend Allen and I were trenching for the water line to my barn. Having no water source on the farm, I had been ferrying it from our apartment by filling a 100-gallon trough in the back of my pickup truck, and then dipping it out by the bucket for the animals. Over the short distance between school and farm, every day the water sloshed and spilled — and froze. Allen glanced in at the foot-thick cake of ice lining my truck bed and observed, “Carryin’ a little weight back there.”
Reading about shared experiences can give you a cozy fellow-feeling. And sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that you really don’t have it so bad. Merrick also wrote about his neighbors. Lyman was a dairy farmer whose buried water line froze in January and didn’t thaw until mid-May.
During all those months Lyman had had to drive his cows and horses down the hill to the spring-fed water trough, in blizzards, snow to the thigh, ice, cold, rain. His cows’ milk production fell off because the water was so cold the cows didn’t drink enough, and they drank too infrequently also. During those four months he had had to carry every drop that was used in the house. The problem of the house is a small matter, but for a dairy farmer with forty head of stock the loss of barn water is something else again. He has to toil like a galley slave till spring, and his milk check will be diminished.
The same thing happened to our neighbor Sibley, on Chimney Ridge. He is one man alone to work a 250-acre farm, hard pressed by a mortgage, milking thirty-five cows, raising fifteen head of young stock, a team of horses to tend, and his children all small.
[Let us pause to consider the work of one man hand-milking thirty-five cows twice a day, every day.]
A neighbor boy told me about it. Sibley walked into the kitchen one morning with a look on his face like a thunder cloud full of lightning.
“What’s the matter, Sibley?” asked his wife.
“The God-damned water’s froze,” said Sibley. He picked up a heavy iron poker and hit the cookstove a clip with it that bent the poker. “The God-damned water’s froze,” he repeated, beating the stove with all the strength of his knotty arms.
“We got to use that stove,” said his wife. So he went to work on a bent hickory chair instead. He smashed it to kindling wood in the twinkling of an eye, cursing and screaming.
Quietly his wife took the poker from his hand. “We need the chair, too,” she said.
He went outside. It was then morning. He did not come back to the house till long after dark, and even after he returned did not speak to anyone for three days. After that he was all right again.
Water gets you.
It does get you. Even on a very small scale, in which frozen water only means carrying twenty or thirty buckets a day, you do long to beat something very hard with a poker. But thankfully for me, though not my skiers, temperatures today are forecast to soar by almost sixty degrees. We are due to have rain and 50 mph winds this afternoon.
It will be a mess. But it seems likely my water will thaw.