Free and Clear: Gathering at Artesian Wells

A photographer's exploration of artesian wells hears splashing music and finds the springs of society in America's Midwest.

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Which came first, the human community or the water well?

It may be Kay Westhues, one of our favorite photographers, who finds the answer bubbling  from her latest endeavor: Well Stories. Kay is documenting old public wells across the Midwest and the cultures that have sprung up around them. Beginning near her home in South Bend, Indiana, she’s already rippled northward into Michigan and south toward the Ohio River Valley, mapping wells in over a dozen counties since last fall.

“There’s a special attraction to these wells,” she says. “I’m starting to understand it the more I hang around them. The water’s so clean. It’s coming from the earth. And it’s free.” The gift of fresh water precipitated many an early settlement. Kay’s discovered that breweries and schools located next to flowing wells, too. Down to today, most of these miraculous spouts continue to be visited and used, often in a spirit of reverence.

Gordon Gilliland, drinking from the well on the family’s farm in English, Indiana, could also recall his mother sitting long ago beside the spring: “She kept all of her milk up here and let the water run through it to keep it cool. And in the summertime, she’d sit up here and churn.”

Kay Westhues is mapping her research into the old wells and springs of Indiana and surrounding states.

Artesian wells – where underground aquifers naturally send water upward without need for a pump – are fairly rare, occurring only where the local geology is just-so.

“Porous stone is sandwiched between a top and bottom layer of an impermeable substance, like clay soil or shale rock,” keeping the water pressure high – so high “that at a point below the entryway of the flow there is enough pressure to bring the water up.” As it passes through layers of stone, these waters are naturally filtered, and usually emerge from the ground clean enough to drink.

Kay was raised on a farm near Walkerton, Indiana, and grew up drinking well water. Its distinctive taste (“or maybe lack of taste,” she says, as no chlorine or other purifying chemicals have been added) is a flavor familiar and good to her. People she’s met gathering water at these old wells often say how good it is “for making coffee.” Kay agrees.

She was inspired to investigate artesian wells by customers at a diner in Delphi, Indiana, where she was shooting pictures for her photo diary Fourteen Places to Eat. “They told me, ‘You’ve got to go to Pittsburg, [Indiana, about two miles up the road] and get some water. It’s the best water!”

“Honk if you want to save the earth” — visitors to the well in Pittsburg, Indiana, March 4, 2010

She began listening and lingering, taking still photographs of wells and their visitors. But Kay soon realized this endeavor needed sound and video, too. Each flowing well has its own tune. Splattering on rocks, the spring near the old Mudlavia Hotel in Warren County sounds like a crackling fire. Kay’s video of the Flowing Well in Pittsburg is hypnotic; it’s as if the water stands still and the pipe is skimming through it.

Kay is as much interested in the cultures and traditions that have grown around these springs as in the water wells themselves. She writes that her larger intention is “to explore the notion of ‘ownership’ of water, contrasting a consumer-driven perception of water as a commodity, with a more indigenous understanding of water as a local resource.”

Already, her Well Stories include a range of “perceptions.” The Chase Street Flowing Well in Gary, Indiana, looks defiled, old tires and boards scattered around a mushy spot rutted with truck treadmarks. Carmel’s Flowing Well is tidy and ever-ready for dispensation; its visitors tend to come prepared with five gallon blue bottles or trot-lines of empty milk jugs.

An eager Aquarian comes prepared to Carmel, Indiana’s Flowing Well, April 29, 2010

Kay’s photographed pennies tossed for luck in the flowing well near Martinsville and graffiti along a rockwall near the Spout Spring, Martin County. The Tree Spring, on private land in Fountain County, was for awhile restricted to outsiders, but now is accessible to the thirsty and the merely curious alike. In Michigan, Kay says, some bottling companies have tried to monopolize and market ancient springs. But like the geological pressures that force these waters to the surface, there are social pressures too, to keep them flowing — public and free.

Kay Westhues’s Fourteen Places to Eat has been powerful and unique — a visual diary of rural northern Indiana. As its title suggests, she is interested in the places where ordinary people gather, and the extraordinary features of allegiance, productivity, conflict, history, and faith that emerge. With Well Stories, too, she is looking at the fundamentals of public life — a kind of proto-citizenship — the mostly unspoken ways we have found to get by and get along.

Do you have a well story? Please help Kay douse for more.

 

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