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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Illustration © Tom Lowes

August 2002

The celebrated water witch of Door County

Clifford's dowsing days were less than divine.

Dave Crehore


Illustration © Tom Lowes

"Great Godamighty," Clifford said, in a tense whisper.

"Great Godamighty there's water right under me here I can feel it dammit look at the willow rod go down!"

Dad tapped the cold ashes out of his pipe into the palm of his hand. "You think you've got it this time?" he said.

"Oh yeah," Clifford said, raptly. "Oh yeah, here it is!"

Dad turned away to hide a smile. He didn't have much faith in dowsing, the ancient, magical art of finding underground water with a willow stick. But he did appreciate peculiarity, and on this quiet Door County morning in May of 1956, Clifford was exhibiting a degree of peculiarity unusual even for him. Dad figured it wouldn't do to break the spell.

Clifford stood bolt upright, rigid and trembling with a wide-eyed smile on his face. Clearly he believed he was having a mystical experience of some kind, and sure enough, his Y-shaped, willow dowsing rod was trembling and pointing down.

Suddenly he relaxed. The connection with the infinite had apparently been broken. Clifford turned to Dad with a delighted grin.

"By God Dave this dowsing stick works just like Old Lady Grun said it would -- have faith and you can find water anywhere she said and dammit there it is." With the heel of his boot, he kicked a hole in the sand to mark the spot. Water began obligingly to well up in the hole.

"Hot damn Dave look at that I know a good deal when I see one this rod was the best five bucks I ever spent doggone it I didn't even hafta dig boy you got to get up pretty early in the morning to fool me I'll tell you by God I really think I'm born to this dowsing business dammit the feeling comes right up that stick and into my arms," Clifford said.

Dad sat down on an old oil drum that was part of the flotsam on Clifford's narrow strip of Door County shoreline and refilled his pipe with Edgeworth. He struck a match on the drum, lit the pipe and gently tamped the tobacco with the end of his pocketknife.

Dad had never met Old Lady Grun, but he knew her by reputation. She was Manitowoc's "cat woman," a faded crone of 70 or so who lived alone in a small house on the south side. She made a meager living selling cats, of which there were always a couple of dozen around the place, and an assortment of literature ranging from the Prophecies of Nostradamus to "Sunshine and Health," the forbidden Swedish nudist magazine. She also dabbled in the occult and peddled magical items like marked poker decks and homemade dowsing rods. Kids in her neighborhood crossed the street before passing her house.

And now, in the hands of a true believer, Old Lady Grun's dowsing rod had found water on a beach ten feet from the shoreline of Green Bay, where a child with a plastic spade and bucket could have found it with much less trouble. Dad reviewed some sarcastic remarks and rejected them, because, in a way, Clifford's Door County venture was his fault.

***

Clifford was a welder at the shipyard where Dad worked as a marine engineer. Wiry, nervous, a confirmed bachelor and a nonstop talker, Clifford reminded Dad of a fox terrier – a busy, bristly, likeable little man who would grab a new idea, chew it for a while, and then bury it and sniff around for another.

Earlier in the '50s, Clifford had fought the Red Menace with "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy, but when the junior senator from Wisconsin went into a tailspin, Clifford swore off politics and became a devotee of vegetarianism – until he tired of sauerkraut and fried onions, the principal vegetables served by the diners where he ate most of his meals. Then someone told him he could become rich by investing in Door County real estate, and that passion preoccupied him until he bought the dowsing rod.

During a lunch break at the shipyard a couple of weeks earlier, when Clifford was still shopping for Door County land, Dad had given him an ad torn from the Manitowoc Herald-Times.

"You're always talking about buying some land in Door County, Cliff," Dad said. "Well, here you go – 'Irregular parcel with 200 feet of Green Bay shoreline, highway access, $1,000 or best offer, contact Sligh Realty, Sturgeon Bay.'"

"Jeez thanks Dave that's just what I've been looking for and it's really cheap too just five bucks a front foot dammit I'll go up there Saturday and look it over," Clifford said.

The parcel was irregular, all right – 200 feet long but only 20 feet from front to back, bounded by the Green Bay shore on one side and a county highway on the other, and covered with stones, sand, little trees and old gull nests. And it didn't take long for the real estate agent to realize that Clifford was even more irregular than the parcel. The following weekend Clifford signed the papers and became a Door County land baron.

***

"Dammit Dave," Clifford said, as he and Dad walked back to the road, "buying this land was just like haggling over an old Ford. Sligh he started out at a thousand and I shook my head and walked away so he came down to $900 but I kept walking away and he kept coming down till we finally settled on $500 I think I could have got him down to $400 but there was only so far I could walk 'cause we drove up there in his car."

"Well," Dad said, "there's water, I guess, but there isn't room to build anything here, y'know – you've only got about a tenth of an acre. Looks like you paid $500 for a gull sanctuary."

"I suppose so Dave but dammit the way to get rich up here isn't to buy land, it's to sell it, so I'll just hang on to this and we'll see what happens," Clifford said.

Dad tamped his pipe again. Like most men his age, he had been tried in the furnace of the Great Depression, which taught him to spend his money on things he had to have right now. If a few dollars were left at the end of the month, they were parked in an insured savings account at the First National, where he could get his hands on them, and that was that. In Dad's experience, investment was a sucker game in which people who wore suits took money from people who didn't. He hated to see a friend get involved, especially one as na´ve as Clifford.

But a more immediate problem awaited Dad later that day when he got home from Door County. The stench that billowed out of the house when he opened the back door told him all he needed to know. Pipe smoking had taken the fine edge off Dad's sense of smell, but the odor of a backed up septic tank was unmistakable. And right behind the stench came an eruption of profanity. Mother was down in the basement, battling the stink and swearing.

Dad was astounded. In 15 years of married life he had only heard her swear once before, when she woke up one morning and found a bat clinging to the bedroom wall. But this was a different sort of swearing altogether, continuous, biting and fluent. He had no idea any woman could swear as well as she was swearing now, with a fine rhythm and in complete sentences. Dad kicked off his shoes, put on a pair of five-buckle galoshes, grabbed a mop and joined her in the basement.

Illustration © Tom Lowes
Illustration © Tom Lowes

About two hours later, when the worst of the sewage had been bailed out and the windows were open to ventilate the house, Mom explained what had happened.

The fine spring day had fired her with domestic energy. She did two big loads of laundry in the Maytag wringer washer, discharging about 100 gallons of soapy water down the floor drain. She waited for our cranky old water heater to recover from the strain, and did a sinkful of dishes and washed her hair. She waited again, and took a relaxing bath. And then, overwhelmed by all that water in one day, the septic tank backed up, filling the basement to a depth of several inches. Feeling a need to do something, she tried to neutralize it with a half-gallon of Lysol, creating a sweet-sour aroma that soaked into the basement floor and lasted for years.

"Charlotte, we have to put in a new septic tank and we might as well replace the well while we're at it," Dad said. "We can't put up with this any longer. We'll just have to take the money out of savings."

The well was in a pit out in the yard. It sucked water from the glacial clay that underlay our property to a depth of about 100 feet. It produced very hard water very slowly, but at least we knew where it was. The septic tank was a mystery. We believed it to be somewhere northeast of the house, but that was just a guess.

That evening, Dad leafed through the Yellow Pages in search of well drillers and septic tank installers. He found the trades dominated by tribes of closely related Dutchmen. At lunchtime the next day, he started calling them.

The well driller was the first to show up. "Shallow wells in this clay aren't any good," he said. "To get good water you gotta go down through the clay to the limestone, enso? You oughta get good water there. But if you don't, then you gotta go down through the shale to the sandstone. One way or the other, we can get you water here, no trouble. But the important thing is to put the well as far as we can from the septic tank, enso?"

The septic tank man agreed with his cousin, the well driller. "We gotta find the old tank before we can do anything," he said. "All your drains seem to go out the northeast corner of the house, so we got to dig a pit by the foundation and find the pipe to the tank. Then we can figger out where the tank is. Can't start the well till we know."

In a few days the pit was dug. The septic tank man stood in the pit with a compass and straddled the pipe. "OK, she goes due northeast like we thought," he said. "So the tank is on a line someplace between here and the gully over there. Once the well is in I'll dig some holes with the auger until we find the old tank. Then we can pull it out and put a new one in the same hole. "Course we'll have to put in a new drain field too, enso?"

"Enso," Dad said.

The well driller returned for his second visit the next day. "Now we're getting someplace," he said. "We know the septic tank will be going in over there, more or less, so we can put the new well right here," he said, poking a stake with a red flag on it into the lawn close to the house. "This'll be a good place – it's a long way from the septic tank and my brother won't have no trouble getting the drilling rig in here. He can start next Monday."

On the Sunday morning before the well driller was due to arrive, Dad had to work at the shipyard. Mother and I dropped him off on our way to church and agreed to pick him up again about noon and go to the Colonial Inn for lunch.

Clifford was at loose ends that Sunday morning. Dad had told him about the well and septic tank projects, so he decided to drive out to our place and see how they were getting along. He opened the front door – we never locked it – and hollered for Dad. Finding no one home but our beagles, he decided to have a look around anyway. He got the dowsing rod from his car and headed for the stake with the red flag on it.

"This must be where they want to put in the well let's just see if those damn fools have any idea how to find water," he said to himself. Clifford grasped the Y-end of the dowsing rod and began to walk slowly in a circle around the stake. Nothing. The rod hung lifeless in his hands. He spiraled out in wider circles. Still nothing.

"Ya ya that's just what I expected there ain't no water here the trouble with them damn Dutchmen is they got a lotta machinery and no inspiration," he muttered.

Clifford started walking toward the deep ravine that ran along the east side of our yard. As he approached the edge the dowsing rod suddenly came alive. First it trembled slightly. Then it began to vibrate visibly, and finally it plunged downward as though it were playing a fish.

"I knew it I knew it I knew it!" Clifford exulted. He laid the rod on the ground to mark the spot, fetched the stake with the red flag, and drove it into the grass at the new location the dowsing rod had found.

The next morning, Dad got a phone call at his office.

"Mr. Crehore? This is Frank the well driller – Jim's brother," he said. "We got started drilling about an hour ago and I guess we got good news and bad news."

"Better give me the bad news first," Dad said.

"Well, the bad news is that we got to move the well-drilling rig, and that'll cost an extra 50 bucks, but the good news is that we found the old septic tank. We started drilling and punched right through the top of the damn thing. Can't imagine why that flag was there. Made no sense at all. Anyway, we're movin' the rig right now and we'll get started again this afternoon."

"Fine," Dad said.

At lunch that day, Dad gave Clifford a stern look.

"Were you out at our place Sunday morning?" he asked. "And did you move a stake with a red flag on it?"

"Well dammit Dave as a matter of fact I was I walked around with my willow stick and damn if I didn't find a lot of water over by the gully so I just thought I'd do you a favor and..."

It was hard to interrupt Clifford, but Dad managed it.

"Well, your favor cost me 50 bucks, Cliff," Dad said. "What you found was the old septic tank."

Clifford pulled his wallet from the pocket of his leather welding apron. "Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty," he counted.

"But dammit Dave the thing was full of water, wasn't it?"

***

When Dad retired in 1974 the shipyard gang threw a party for him. Clifford was a prominent guest.

"Dammit Dave now you're footloose you gotta come up to my place in Door County sometime for a weekend and bring the missus it's always so nice and cool up there," Clifford said.

"You mean to tell me you built on that little strip of land you bought?" Dad asked.

"No no I got a two-acre lot with lots of trees just north of Ephraim with a little house on it I swapped it for my land along the bay," Clifford said.

"But Cliff, that land was worthless," Dad said.

"Well, dammit it was and it wasn't," Clifford said. "You remember all them little trees that was growing on it back in 1956 well they just kept on growing for 18 years and then Sligh he decided to build a bunch of cottages right across the road from my land on the bay.

"Only trouble was you couldn't see the bay from them cottages because of my trees and the customers said they wouldn't buy unless they could watch the sunset from their front windows so Sligh he come to me and we worked out a little trade and he got my land and I got the Ephraim place," Clifford said.

"Dammit Dave it's just like Old Lady Grun said, just have faith and things will work out OK, enso?"

"Enso," Dad said.

Dave Crehore writes from Green Bay.