On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the March Artifact of the Month is a wooden water pump. Today we take for granted easy access to clean, fresh water, but having water was not always so simple. This type of water pump illustrates an important advancement in how settlers of western Illinois once got water.
Used throughout the Midwest during pioneer times, and on into the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, the wooden water pump was a significant part of an established farm. A pump giving easy access to water was progress from hauling from a stream or raising buckets from a well. A water pump was an indication of a successful farmer and was a major step forward in establishing permanent settlements in the region.
Since the beginning of civilization, water has played an important part in places where humans settled. The size of human settlements was largely dependent on nearby available water. Typically, people lived and worked near water sources, such as springs, rivers or ponds and lakes. People would have to travel to the water source, fill buckets and carry the water home. This tiring work needed to be done every day or so, even in the worst weather. Keeping a supply of water was a task requiring a huge amount of time and effort. Throughout history, people have devised systems to make getting and using water more convenient. Water pumps have been in existence since 3000 B.C. Made with water wheels and chutes, early pumps used animals to provide the energy to move the wheels. Pump technology developed and the wooden water pump on display at the museum uses human power. Moving the handle on the side of the pump up and down brings the water up through the pump and out the spigot. Usually installed outside the house, this type of pump was for both home and general farm use.
The E. W. Walker’s Factory in Goshen, Indiana, produced one popular brand of wooden water pump used throughout the Midwest. Established in 1870, this factory sold wooden pumps in Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Kentucky. Eventually, all-metal pumps replaced wooden pumps, and many farms in the US still have an old metal pump somewhere on the property. In many parts of the world, manual metal water pumps are used currently.
Harold A. Warner donated the wooden pump to the museum in 1985. This type of pump is sometimes called a “post pump”–– as it is made from a hollowed-out post. The museum pump is over eight feet long with a cast iron pipe at the end. Logs were cut to create a square post approximately 8” by 8” and an auger bored a hole through the length of the 8 x 8 creating an internal shaft. Near the top of the post was a wooden handle and on the side is a cast iron spigot. These pumps were not left sitting in the well water, but rather were lowered from above to sit in a metal ring in the side of the well that sat a bit below the water level. After being used, the pump would be lifted up until needed again.
The wooden water pump at the museum is similar to a type made by early western Illinois pioneer, Abner Walker. Abner came to Illinois as part of a large group of Walkers and their in-laws, who migrated from Kentucky to the McDonough County area in the1830s. Other members of the Walker family also settled in this area and became important in the history of this region.
Abner lived near Macomb until he moved to Greenbush, Illinois, in 1849, where he died of cholera in 1851. A man with many talents, Abner was a contractor and worked on building homes in the area. He also operated a sawmill and a hotel in Greenbush, and he made some wooden pumps. The type of pump Walker made is similar to the pump at the museum. This type of hand-powered wooden water pump was THE pump for all of the pioneers in the western Illinois region, until the introduction of the cast iron pump.
From an essay by Heather Munro. Research assistance and information for this Artifact of the Month was provided by Marty Fischer.