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Water Witching Stays Devoted Tradition

By Lisa Hare
lisa.hare@yankton.net

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of the Press & Dakotan’s monthly series spotlighting occupations, tasks and duties in our coverage area.
Water-Witching-Stays-Devoted-Tradition
Wilfred Tramp of Crofton, Neb., has been witching water for more than 50 years. Tramp has used a variety of divining tools such as tree branches and copper rods, but says he has equal luck using a simple piece of baling wire, like the one pictured here. (Lisa Hare/P&D)
CROFTON, Neb. — To some it’s a mystery, to others a hoax.

But bona fide or bogus, water witching — also known as dowsing — is a tradition that has been around for thousands of years.

And it’s not surprising that particularly rural and remote areas  — where there aren’t many hydrologists or geologists to be found — have relied on seemingly less-than-professional means for determining where best to find water.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” said Wilfred Tramp of Crofton, Neb.
Tramp, now 70, said he was first introduced to water witching when his father had a witcher out to find a new well for their farm.

“He used a chokecherry branch, and he showed me how to do it,” Tramp said. “I just started playing around with it, and found out I could do it.”

But apparently, not just anyone can. And that adds not only to the mystery of the skill, but sparks skepticism of its legitimacy, as well.

Some water exists under the earth’s surface almost everywhere. To skeptics, this explains the apparent success of many dowsers.

According to the U .S. Department of the Interior/Geological Survey, a number of techniques must be used to locate ground water accurately — referring to depth, quantity and quality, as well as knowledge in hydrologic, geologic and geophysical sciences. 

Geology experts contend the area must be thoroughly tested and studied to determine these facts. The U.S. Geological Survey — the federal agency responsible for assessing the quantity and quality of the nation’s surface and ground waters -believes that no technique suffices to locate favorable water-well sites.

“I know some people don’t believe in it,” Tramp said, “but others have had well drillers come and dig 4 or 5 dry holes for them, and then as a last resort, they’ll call out a witcher, and he’ll show them right where to dig.”

One irrigation sales representative with Sargent Well Drilling and Irrigation in Neligh, Neb., said he’s had several customers speak of water witching.

“I haven’t had any personal experience with water witching,” the representative said. “But I know some of our irrigation customers call in and say they’re having their place witched, and they want us out to drill test holes only after the witcher comes.”

For a professional hydrologist, the first step in locating ground water involves preparing a geologic map showing where the different kinds of rock come to the land surface, and the condition of the rock and its propensity for holding water. Next, information is gathered on the wells in the area -their locations, the depth to water, the amount of water pumped, and the kinds of rock they penetrate. Wells already drilled provide the mainstay of information.

“I just use an old piece of baling wire,” Tramp said, adding that he rarely asks any information about neighboring wells.

“I used to use chokecherry branches or apple tree branches, but my wife got mad at me because I was breaking off the trees all the time,” he added.

Tramp said he can locate underground water by walking with the wire held out in front of him, and when the wire starts to bob, he knows he’s over a “vein” of water.

“I can usually get within 10 feet of estimating how deep they’ll need to drill to find good water,” he said. He counts the number of times the wire bobs before it comes to a stop.

How does he do it?

“I don’t know,” Tramp admitted. “It seems like not everyone can do it, though. I have one son that can, and one son that can’t.”

Tramp said he doesn’t dowse to make money.

“I just try to cover my gas and time, and help people find a good place to drill a well.”

And some times are busier than others.

“I haven’t done a lot of witching lately,” he said. “Back in the ‘60s when we had a terrible drought, there was one summer when I was hardly ever home.” Tramp added that many rural wells were drying up.

“I was out every day witching for water,” he said. “I think my kids must have thought I’d left home for good.”

Though Tramp estimates he has about a 95 percent accuracy rate, he admits he’s been wrong a time or two.

“Farm wells are easy find; it’s irrigation wells that get tricky because they’re looking for 600-800 gallons per minute,” he said. “I may find the water, but if the soil there is too sandy, the volume won’t be there.”

Tramp, who says water witching is a “dying art,” added that he’s had plenty of experience with professional well drillers who think witching is a sham.

“That usually happens when they’ve had trouble locating water and I find it on the first try,” he said.

When asked whether he believed in water witching, the Sargent Irrigation representative said, “I can’t answer that. But I know some people definitely do.”

 
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