Appalachia Heritage

Gravity Fed Spring Water In Appalachia

gravity water

Water-sometimes we take it for granted-the way it magically falls from our faucets or appears on store shelves we visit. For most folks living in the USA, water is easily accessible-even during times of drought.

Throughout the world’s history people have used different methods of attaining and using water-from the elaborate schemes of the Romans to present day filtration systems which insure we drink only the purest cleanest water.

In Appalachia today, people generally have wells or get their water from local municipalities. In days gone by, most Appalachians used springs to meet their water needs.

Homes were built in the vicinity of a spring as water had to be carried to the house. To aid in the usefulness of springs-troughs were sometimes used to bring the water straight into the house or yard. Pap can recall folks channeling spring water to their yard or even straight into the kitchen. This was fairly easy to facilitate if gravity was on their side. (Gristmills often used the water chute/trough method to carry water from a nearby creek to turn the millstone to grind corn.)

With the passage of time man invented black rolled pipe. After the pipe became widespread (in our area it was during the mid 1960s), folks begin to use the pipe to carry water from the spring. Since pipe was easier to use and greatly increased the distance water could be carried-the choice of which spring to use could be widened to ensure gravity was indeed on their side.

I was around 3 or 4 years old when Pap built our house-which had gravity water. The spring Pap used was about a half a mile above the house. Pap dug out the spring (a spring used previously by his Grandfather Bird) placed the end of the black pipe in the water, weighted it with rocks, put a screen over the end to keep out trash; ran the pipe along the ground-buried in places-back to our house where it connected with the water system. The fall of gravity along the pipe kept it filled with water-when you turned on the tap-water!

Our gravity water was the best tasting water ever-however, there were downsides to it. The biggest aggravation was it’s tendency to freeze in the winter. While Pap, buried much of the pipe there was no way he could bury every inch of it-some of it ran along the side of the creek where the ground is literally solid rock. Freezing temps overnight wouldn’t freeze the water-but a real cold snap lasting several days was sure to freeze it. Pap would leave water running in one or two sinks at night to prevent freezing. But during harsh winters we often woke to no water-until Pap thawed it out. Pap would uncouple the links of pipe and try to blow out the ice-it often worked shooting solid round icicles from the end-me and Paul liked this part-the pieces seemed liked popsicles to us. If those attempts failed Pap would build fires along the pipe to warm it up-we liked playing in the fires too.

I was a young teenager when Pap had a well drilled. I remember him worrying-would the water taste as sweet as our spring water-would it be as cold and fresh? Pap was ecstatic when the well water tasted just as sweet, cold, and fresh as our gravity water-I suppose he was also pretty happy the days of unfreezing black pipe were over for him.

Many folks have pontificated on Appalachians and their great love for mountain water. Even going so far as to declare “water coming from steep mountain hollers is the only water fit to drink!”

Drop back by the Blind Pig in the following days to see me and the girls search for Pap’s spring, go back in time with Pap and Uncle Henry as they reminisce about the spring of their youth, and enjoy an extra special post written by the Blind Pig’s first guest writer.

What kind of water system did you grow up with?



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  • Reply
    Nike Dunk High Premium
    June 21, 2010 at 3:19 am

    The opinions you provid are of grat help, I like your blog, thank you.

    • Reply
      Sherry Thacker
      March 30, 2021 at 12:15 pm

      We had 2 springs we used water from and I loved going to the spring on a really hot day getting a bucket of cold water to make Kool-aid. We caught rain water to do laundry in if we could. During a dry spell we had to carry water to wash clothes in so you better take off school clothes when you got home so you could wear them more than once before they were washed.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Hi Tipper,
    Your story about your folks and the old spring was so bittersweet is brought tears to my eyes! I grew up in Spruce Pine and we had a spring on the property with a spring house. The was was so sweet! Nothing like it. Dad brought it into the house with a black tubing and we used for cooking and bathing etc. In the spring house we kept extra milk and sodas to keep cool on hot Carolina summer days. Sundrop stays chilly in the cool water. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Reply
    April 17, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I love this post. It brought back a lot of memories for me. Although, I have no recollection of that picture of me and you. Isn’t it cool how the canopy of the woods makes it so dark. I’m sure that picture was probably taken in the middle of the day, but it’s like a different world in those woods. You can see one shaft of light making it through behind us. I remember well the fires Pap made to thaw out the pipes, but you made no mention of the how the squirrels loved to bite into the pipes and leave two little jets of water springing into the air. I guess they were just curious. In the winter, those little jets would build into ice castles. Somewhere I have a picture of one of those ice castles that must have been eight feet high and ten feet across. One time, in the middle of summer, I came upon a neon green garden snake in the woods who had propped himself on a twig and was letting the water from one of the squirrel bites spray him in the side of the face. It was the coolest thing. I wish I had had a camera with me. I noticed that you said Pap used a screen to keep the “trash” out. I think that’s another Appalachian expression. I wonder if any of your readers took that literally or if everyone knew that when we say “trash” with regard to water, we mean “leaves and twigs.”

  • Reply
    April 16, 2009 at 8:14 am

    This was an interesting read. Amazing, isn’t it, how much brain power goes into moving water in and out of a place?
    There’s a spring near us where people still bring their jugs because it’s the nicest, sweetest water around.

  • Reply
    April 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I grew up with a well that was the best tasting water. But over the years the water level lowered and the well was not sufficient for a household. Our yard was watered with spring water and we sometimes carried water from that when the water level was lower. My mother now has a wonderful deep well with loads of water and she is so happy. She hated it that she would run low on water. My sister up until about two years ago lived on the mountain above my parents place and her entire home was spring water fed much like the spring your father used. She would walk the line and clean the screen every other day but the worst part was the winter like you say. Lots of snow and the line would freeze. She finally sold that place and now has well water.

  • Reply
    Nancy M.
    April 14, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    How cool! I grew up with city water. But my aunt had a well with a pump that I loved to pump water from. Great memories!

  • Reply
    Carolyn A.
    April 14, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Sister S, in WV, has well water that tastes like sulphur and smells like rotten eggs. The first cup of tea I had with it was fine, but the next cup smelled really bad and I couldn’t drink it. We grew up with City delivered water which sometimes had a little too much chlorine taste. The water we had when we were in Harrisonburg, VA was mountain water. Just like you said, cold, crisp and very refreshing. Can’t wait to hear more about you all looking for Pap’s spring. xxoo

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I’m dying to know what your water pressure was like! In my life we had some wells and some “city water.” I always hated city water. I hate it now, too. I love it when I visit my dad in Missouri and get the well water. No taste–just water.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    We never had spring water, but my grandma had the coldest, best tasting well water there was.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Tipper, what a wonderful post and what great comments from your readers. Everyone who has ever tasted the “good water” remembers it!
    I grew up with city water but when we visited my grandmother I got to taste what good water is.
    Now I have to filter my water in order to be able to drink it—-in order to feel safe drinking it!
    Traveling through these mountains of Western North Carolina as a youngster I remember we always stopped to drink when we passed place where spring water was piped to the roadside. It was a special treat. Such memories!!
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    April 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Back in the ’80s, when they cut a new gap in the top of Clinch Mountain above Bean Station to four-lane US 25-E, they exposed a mountainside spring pouring out of the rock not too far from the roadside.
    In that region, if a spring is on a hillside, it’s fairly common for folks to stick a waterpipe back into the springhole. That way, they don’t have to dip a bucket into the spring and muddy up the water. The water runs continously and all they have to do fill their dipper or bucket under the spout.
    And, that’s what they did there; the pipe comes all the way over to the roadside and is propped up for easy access.
    Now, if you’re traveling up 25-E on the way to Cumberland Gap, you always see cars pulled over and folks waiting patiently with their milk jugs to get this wonderful water. Oh, what water! Cold, perfectly clear, pure … with something as perfect as this you know there is God.
    I’m always chided by my wife and daughter when we’re coming from the Smokies or from Kingsport, because I’ll swing miles out of the way just to cross Clinch Mountain and wait my turn at the water spout.

  • Reply
    Matthew Burns
    April 14, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    I remember all that we had growing up was a spring for our water. We had it gravity fed into our kitchen sink but no other water in the house. I remember we had to keep the filter screen out of the faucet because lizard kept getting caught in it. Better to have them come out in the sink than getting them stuck and dead in the water line! That water did seem to taste better than the well water that we have now.
    Great post.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 8:48 am

    what a great post tipper and so interesting to a girl brought up on regular tap water…although i have a long term love of finding springs here in the forest and when i loved in dorset.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 7:50 am

    I grew up on city water in a small northern Michigan town. We raised our kids on well water on our place in the “country”. It sure was hard to go back to city water when we moved.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Tipper , I hung on every word , that was one of the best post I have read in a long , you out did yourself, what talent. and the comments were just great .
    I had forgotten about the pipe coming out of the side of the mountain , but I can remember now ,when we use to go to the smokies ,that Dad always stopped and we would drink spring water , I can see in my mind’s eye the sign right before the pipe that said “spring water ahead”.When we went to Uncle OscarHurst in Silva, I can remember that Aunt Maude keep the milk in a wooden box with holes drilled in the sides for the water to pass thru it was the best ,coldest milk around. and the water was gravity feed right to her kitchen. I can never thank you enough for all the great memories that pop into my head when I read Blind Pig and The Acorn, It is truly one of a kind . love you Malcolm

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 2:13 am

    Very interesting stuff, Tipper! It certainly gives me a renewed appreciation for modern plumbing, though I would enjoy that sweet spring water, no doubt!
    I don’t recall any of our relatives not having indoor water plumbed to their house, but I do recall some who didn’t have indoor toilets. Using their outhouses terrified me. I was always afraid a snake would come up and bite me on the keister! ;-Þ

  • Reply
    April 14, 2009 at 12:23 am

    When I was 11, my parents bought 50 acres where we built a log house, (hand-peeling the logs!) and had a well drilled. We then hand dug the ditches from the well to the house, laid the pipe and hand-filled those ditches back in. We also laid pipe all the way down to the barn so that we could have a faucet at the barn to water the animals. The water from that well was ice-cold and incredible!

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    I grew up with town water supply, but when we went camping/hunting/fishing, we drank freely from the streams. Not anymore. No, those same streams and every other stream in N. CA. are no longer safe. Giardia and who knows what else are lurking in those beautiful waters. Safe water is important. In old times back in KS, my father’s family became very ill after moving to an old farmhouse served by an old well. His dad and brother lost their lives to typhoid and his pregnant mother was seriously ill for a long time. The whole family was sick. I’m thankful for safe water piped into our house –but I still use a Britta filter pitcher.

  • Reply
    Amy @ parkcitygirl
    April 13, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    i love this post! I’ve grown up on city water, but I think at one point in the 60’s it had been gravity. There was a huge reservoir at the top of the hill. Now we are on city water, and it is very, very hard – so we use reverse osmosis filters to clean it and it is the best! I love it more than any of the bottled waters – they all taste funny 🙂

  • Reply
    Just Jackie
    April 13, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    When I was little we had a “deep” well that was dug during the Civil War. (It was used at the blast furnace where they were making shot) The well had the best water and never went dry even in the worst of summers. I would hide behind the well house and eat tomatoes. When we moved to town and I first tasted city water, I gagged. I was so happy to move back to a place where well water was cold and sweet.
    Since we have had so much rain this season, we have discovered a spring on the back of the property. Does Pap have any ideas as to what I can do with this?? Right now, it’s making a little pond and I don’t know how to make it flow down the property. It might dry up again when summer comes but I’ve had fun messing with it. 🙂

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    We started off with a sweet well and it was really nice. Something happened at some point and it went dry so we drilled another well…not sweet. The cool thing was that about a half mile down the road, there was an awesome spring that ran year round. We collected drinking water from it but used the well for washing and such. We were back home a few weeks ago and the spring was still running and still sweet. Pretty nice!

  • Reply
    Elizabeth Thomas
    April 13, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    I’m really enjoying your blogs. Down here in south Louisiana fifty years or more ago we depended on outdoor cisterns for water and hoped it rained enough to keep them filled. I never thought it tasted very good. I guess people who lived along the bayous and rivers used those for water.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Tipper, We lived in town when I was little, and in 1st grade we moved to the country and had a pipe well.
    The “bucket” was actually a 4ft length of galvanized pipe about 4in across. It had a flap closure at the bottom that was attached to a rope. You pulled on the rope to close it after it filled up, then you hauled it up and poured it into a bucket. The next farm we moved to had a well on top of the hill, we were at the bottom, it did have a pump and daddy would check it often. The last time he had to check it he found out something had unplugged the pump and he then figured out we had a gravity flow well. To me it was the best water I have ever tasted.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I grew up with lake water which was pumped to a city reservoir. About a mile down the road were a series of springs and people used to fill jugs with the spring water, feeling it was healthier than the reservoir water. These days I have a well and very hard water so we fill jugs with city water when we visit friends or family.

  • Reply
    petra michelle
    April 13, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Being a city girl, having visited and then moving and living in the country for some time really made me come to appreciate the wholesomeness and freshness of spring water. There’s just no comparison. Can understand Pap’s elation when he was able to get the same from the well. Fascinating post, Tipper! And am I looking forward to your guest writer! :))

  • Reply
    Kim Campbell
    April 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I remember my grandma has a pump out in the yard even though they had indoor plumbing and such.
    It was always fun to use it occaisionally. COLD and refreshing.

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    April 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    We had an old red hand pump right next to the kitchen. My Mamaw drew water out of a well with a bucket. It was covered pretty well to protect us young’uns but ,we would still get a whippen though if we played near it or let the little ones near it. By the way have you ever had poke greens?

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Hi Tipper!
    We have city water – tastes like it too!
    We went up to Snowbird – a ski and summer resort in the mountains near here. I was amazed at how good the water was there. They said people tell them that all the time. Probably something similar to yours=)

  • Reply
    Helen G.
    April 13, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I grew up on city water in Okla. City. I have well water now that I live out from all the city conveniences. I love the water out here but it sure has a lot of minerals in it. Hard water is what they call it around here.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Tipper, when my mother remarried after my dad passed away, we moved back to the country after living in town for four years. My step-father’s place had spring water. It was the best water I’ve ever tasted. I’m not sure what kind of system he used, but I remember it ran through the cellar in the side of a hill. I don’t remember it ever freezing up in winter.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    For the most part I remember town or well water. One time we lived in a house with a cistern built into the back porch and it would get filled up by a truck carrying water.
    I do remember in later years my Papaw found a spring out in some woods and would go out and fill milk gallon jugs of the stuff…it was very good!
    My mother-in-law in western KY has the best tasting water in her area and it is a well.
    Great post!

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I grew up with a spring, it was not on a hill but it was close to the house so we didn’t have to carry water too far. there was a cut out in a rock that the water ran into, big enough to dip the water bucket in and fill your bucket. Everyone that drank the water said it was the coldest and best tasting water that they ever drank.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Before they made I-26 a four-lane over Sam’s Gap into Asheville, we used to drive the old curvy road to get to NC. At the top of Sam’s Gap was a little spring coming out of a black pipe right beside the road. My favorite part of the trip as a kid was stopping there to drink right from the water flowing out of the pipe. My Dad loved it as much as I did and stopped every time. When I got older and drove that road to get to college, I used to stop and fill up a water bottle and take a bit of the mountains down to school with me.
    Thanks for reminding me of that. There are still some springs like this on the curvy back roads in the mountains. We grew up with city water, but my uncles’ cabins both had well water from underground springs. There’s nothing as good as mountain spring water straight from the old black pipe! My mother-in-law has a well here, but it’s just not as good as mountain water!

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    April 13, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Tipper: I grew up with city water with all the additives but always loved the wells of the cabins we visited while on vacation or hunting. The water from springs were always a treat.

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