a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A springhouse "unspoiled" by time

It wasn’t safe to drink water from the faucets in our home when we moved in 1960 to a tiny village in Pittsburgh’s industrial belt.

The stuff was too dirty when drawn from a deep, musty cistern buried beside the two-story clapboard house in Webster. The sink was fed by rainwater that ran off the black slate roof singles and into rusty downspouts that led directly to the concrete-line storage tank.

Within a few years, health officials in Pennsylvania felt sorry for Webster and they dispatched a crew of men to construct a public spring on the hillside to serve the town of nearly 800 residents.

Soon, my parents sent me packing a glass gallon milk bottle in each hand to fetch the water, barefoot, for our kitchen. I slid back down that barren hillside barely able at age 7 to carry the weight of the jugs, allowing them to spill to lessen my load and praying that they didn’t drop and shatter.

In short order, the state slapped a sign on that spring warning us not to drink the water because it was heavily polluted with E. coli traced to spillages from the many poorly-built septic systems at the rows of houses on top of the hill.

The sign was quickly torn off and the neighbors continued to draw the water. Thankfully, mom had the sense to follow instructions to boil all of our water before storing it away in the refrigerator. Frustrated, the state ordered the removal of the spring, and we were forced to look elsewhere until “city water” came to town in 1965.

But in the interim, our search for drinkable water led us to an old springhouse that had been in use for a century beside the main road at the north end of town. No one monitored that crystal clear water because it was on private property owned by a family that didn’t care if people stopped by for refills.

The property has since been abandoned, yet many people still stop there each day to gather water. Some say they just like the taste, while others still believe that spring water has magical healing qualities, even though scientists long ago proved that notion wrong.

As a public service for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., Pennsylvania American Water tested that springhouse supply last week for bacteria. The results showed that it is as good as any good well, but it contains trace amounts of coliform and should be boiled before consuming. Folks undoubtedly will still drink that water without boiling it, as Willie Pettyjohn has been drinking from the springhouse for 40 years and has no immediate plan to stop.

“It hasn’t harmed me,” the retired steelworker from nearby Fellsburg told the newspaper.

At this point, who has the heart to spoil his taste for the stuff?

(Caption: George Casson of Carroll Township, Pa., stocks up at a old springhouse in Webster, Pa.)

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