A well sweep is an ingenious device used to bring water up from a well. The only materials needed to construct a well sweep were wooden poles, usually obtained locally, and a heavy weight of stone or clay. A vertical post, often with a Y notch at the top, was mounted by the well hole. The post held a horizontal pole, or sweep, which was heavier at one end and rested on the ground. A long, thin pole with an attached bucket or pail was placed at the other end. A person would pull the thin pole and bucket down into the well and fill it with water, and the sweep’s weight would then lift the bucket up. The term, “sweep” refers to the long pole which is lowered until the bucket on the end goes down into the well and fills with water. Because the pole is anchored in the middle on another pole, creating a fulcrum, it can be counter balanced, thus making it easier to raise the pole, and lift the bucket from the well. When correctly balanced, the counterweight will support a half-filled bucket, so some effort is used to pull an empty bucket down to the water, but only the same effort is needed to lift a full bucket.
Originally developed in Ancient Egypt, a drawing of such a device appears on a Sumerian seal of c.2000 BCE. Well sweeps are still used in many areas of Africa and Asia to draw water. Also called a “shadoof” or “shaduf”, they remain quite common in Hungary’s Great Plains, where they are known as “gémeskút” (literally, “ heron wells”) and are symbols of the region. In France, where sweeps were still widespread in the countryside in 1986, they are called “balancing wells”.
The bucket ( or skin bag or coated reed basket) can be made in many different styles, sometimes having an uneven base or a part at the top of the skin that can be untied. This allows the water to be immediately distributed rather than manually emptied. The short end carries a weight (clay, stone, or similar) which serves as the counterpoise of a lever. When used for irrigation, with an almost effortless swinging and lifting motion, the waterproof vessel is used to scoop up and carry water from one body of water (typically, a river or pond) to another. At the end of each movement, the water is emptied out into runnels that convey the water along irrigation ditches in the required direction. Well sweeps in New England were more common one hundred years ago or more and came to be replaced by pulleys and cranks and eventually by mechanical pumps.
The well sweep in clearly visible in this 1905 photo of Joy Farm, summer home of the American poet, author and painter, E.E. Cummings.
Bud Shackford and his brothers, Meyhew and Loren, replace the Y shaped fulcrum pole at Joy Farm sometime in the 1950s. Cummings also had an iron hand pump in the kitchen.
The well sweep at Joy Farm has been repaired many times over the intervening years, most recently by the current owners, although they no longer use water from the well.
Visit Joy Farm and 7 other locations in the Silver Lake area as part of the Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration Weekend, July 10 & 11, 2015. Tickets are $15 per person prior to July 1st and $20 after that date.
Be sure to attend the Saturday evening “nonlecture” during the EE Cummings at Silver Lake Celebration to hear the funny story of Bud Shackford fixing the wellsweep and Marion Morehouse taking that photo.
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