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Primitive cisterns weren't without bacteria.

COUNTRYSIDE: I'm writing in response to Mrs. Stanko's inquiry on using cisterns without bleach or filters. First of all, I don't think ancient cisterns produced clean, healthy water. If anything, they were probably little short of a cesspool, i.e., they were probably on the same par with the primitive conditions that still exist in third-world countries. The discovery that bacteria (and later viruses) caused disease didn't occur until the late 1880s. Thus, bacteria-free water wasn't even a concern or concept until well after the Civil War.

On the original family farm, cisterns and hand-dug wells were, and still are, the only source of water. The cistern was filled with rainwater collected from the roof of the house, drained into a gravel/sand "filter," and thence into the cistern. The "filter" did little more than strain out twigs, leaves and trash. Anything that was on the roof, including bird deposits (a thought we didn't dwell on), went into the cistern. During dry spells when the cistern went dry, we cleaned them out. They usually contained about six to 12 inches of mud in the bottom. When it rained, we let the mud settle, and it was life as usual again. The wells weren't much better. We had three of them, all covered with wooden decks equipped with trap-doors in order that the cream cans and butter could be hung from ropes down into the well during hot weather. They were notorious for leaking. If a bucket of water overflowed, the water and anything on the deck went back into the well. In those days, we lived by the philosophy that "a little clean dirt didn't hurt anybody."

The reason that thousands of rural families like us were able to thrive under these conditions was that (a), the human alimentary tract is able to cope with a myriad of bacteria, and (b) the immune system picks up where that left off. Suffice it to say, one became immune to whatever "culture" one had in his own well and cisterns. I'm not saying there weren't occasional problems. During haying and threshing time, neighbors banded together and rotated around to everyone's farm. Drinking from strange wells on these farms (school house or church for that matter), would occasionally produce a well-known condition we called "the well water scoots" or "the well water trots" (diarrhea). It was thought to be caused by a different mineral content in these wells. Actually, it was probably the "culture" unique to that particular well or cistern. Regardless, it wasn't uncommon for members of the crew so affected to quickly dog-trot a rapid exit from the field into the timber several times a day. Off the subject, but I vividly recall one family had a well with so much iron in the water that it would almost rust your teeth! At another family's the water was "slick," and still another's couldn't quench your thirst. You could drink until you had a stomachache, and still be thirsty!

By far the best method to insure clean, wholesome water from a cistern is indeed the use of bleach (sodium hypochloride). It is highly effective in small quantities, and the amount of chloride one would consume from drinking treated water is minuscule. I haven't done the math, but one would probably consume many, many more chlorine molecules by salting one's eggs for breakfast, than one would consume drinking a five gallon bucket of treated water.

In summation, if bleach or filters for cistern water are not a viable option, there is always the third. Simply don't use them, and do what our family did from the 1870s to present. We had a 14-year-old neighbor boy killed by a runaway team of horses, but no one ever died drinking cistern or well water under constant exposure (and contamination) from whatever the elements provided. A little clean dirt doesn't seem to hurt anyone.

-- D.L. Salsbury, DVM, Wellsville, KS
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Author:D.L.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:654
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