Rants & Essays

Water Witch of Thetford Center

By Noel Perrin

The old house we bought needed a new well, and since I was going to do the digging I was eager to ply my shovel in a likely spot.

The house was located in Thetford Center, Vt., and the natives in our new village told us the person to consult about wells was Milford Preston, a retired dairy farmer. He would go straight to buried water, they said - just take his want and go. Sure, that's what you call the forked stick a dowser uses, they explained. Milford Preston was a water witch.

My wife and I felt a little foolish about engaging a witch. After all, we were well-schooled products of city life, and now I was on the faculty at nearby Dartmouth College. For us, water was a thing that engineers provided, not something retired farmers found with sticks. Still, I needed a reason to dig in one place rather than another. We called Mr. Preston.

He had one eye and walked with a limp. I suppose he was around 70. He told us his family had many witches, but he lacked ability until he was struck by lightning. The bolt, he said, altered his body magnetism. He could no longer wear a wristwatch, because his body would magnetize and stop it. But he could dowse unerringly.

It took Mr. Preston 20 minutes to find a spot where, he said, two veins of water came together, seven feet down. While he was running his forked willow stick over the spot a third time, just to be sure of the depth, a power-company pickup truck pulled into our yard. Out stepped a young lineman, here to move the meter. He was a local, and saw at a glance what was up.

"Well, Milford," he said. "Havin' fun again?" The sarcasm was gentle, but clear.

"It works," Mr. Preston said, a shade gruffly.

"Sure it works," said the lineman. "Just about anywhere you dig in Vermont you're going to hit water sooner or later. In this town, mostly sooner."

Mr. Preston didn't answer immediately. Instead he walked over to the barn, where there was a heap of sand. My wife, the lineman and I followed.

"All right," he said to the lineman. I'll go out behind the barn. No way can I see this pile from there. He" -nodded at me- "can come with me and make sure I don't. Then you can make three little piles with that sand, and bury a quarter in one of them. If I witch it, I keep it."

"Done," said the lineman.

We went behind the barn. A few minutes later the lineman shouted for us to come back, and when we did, we found my wife and him looking pleased with themselves. They had made not three piles of sand, but five, spaced two feet apart.

Mr. Preston passed his wand over the first pile. Not a twitch. He reached the second, and the point of the stick dipped sharply, just as it had when he claimed to have found the two veins of water. His expression didn't change. He bent over, dug his fingers in the sand, found the quarter and put it in his pocket.

Then - just to be thorough, I suppose - he went on to the third pile. The wand stayed level. The fourth. Nothing. At the last one, the wand dipped. Mr. Preston looked surprised, but said nothing. He just bent down, found the second quarter and put it in his pocket. Then he looked at the lineman. "You ain't so tricky as you thought," Mr. Preston said.

At that moment I became a believer. I wasn't a bit surprised when I dug my well at the place Mr. Preston had marked and got a good flow of water - at a little under seven feet.

Months later, when we had begun to call him Milford, I was talking with a distinguished member of the Dartmouth physics department about our water witch, the sand piles - and Milford's theory that lightning has altered his body magnetism. "I believe his theory," I said. "But then, I'm an exceptionally credulous English prof. Want to bet me $50 he can't do it again?"

The physicist was not even tempted. "No thanks," he said. "There's a lot in physics we still don't understand."

"Oh, come on," I said. "Have a little faith in science. Bet me $25."

The physicist shrugged. "I'll bet you a dollar."

"Forget it," I said. "For that amount it's not worth the trouble."'

I miss the old days, when scientists knew they were right and the rest of us were victims of superstition. I'd been planning to split the money with Milford.