When the well runs dry ...

Hauling water just a part of life for Fish Springs, Little Milligan residents

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   On the popular television show "Andy Griffith," Andy used to sit on the front porch in the evening and sing, "What'cha gonna do when the well runs dry? Sit on the porch and cry, cry, cry ..."
   People in the Fish Springs and Little Milligan area can relate to that song all too well.
   Little Milligan Elementary School Principal J.R. Campbell asked his third-grade class last week: "How many of you have ever had to haul water?"
   Seven out of 12 students raised their hands.
   One girl said her water comes from a well. "Whenever they run it, black things come out."
   A child from Elk Mills said his family gets water from a spring. "The water tastes funny," he said.
   According to one boy, "It used to be fun hauling water. Now, it's not fun anymore. It's fun playing in the creek when it's warm."
   Another boy turned to him and said, "But it ain't no fun going out there when it's about 20 degrees and you're trying to get your water thawed out."
   Citizens of the Fish Springs and Little Milligan communities will meet with state officials at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Little Milligan Elementary to pursue their quest for a dependable water source via grant money.
   In these Appalachian Mountain communities the onset of winter means a new struggle. When temperatures dip near zero and stay for several days, you're likely to see locals trekking up the mountainside to break apart the black roll water pipe which has now become clogged with ice. The line cannot be buried, in many instances, because it snakes out from tiny springs on government land, which cannot be disturbed.
   Frozen water lines mean hauling water from another source in whatever is handy, usually milk jugs. Winter means conservation -- recycling bath water to flush toilets or using rinse water from the dishes to mop floors. It means filling the stove top with pots and pans to heat water for a bath which always cools too quickly.
   At Smith Spring last Thursday, residents filling their tanks on a sunny afternoon, discussed the need for water. Principal Campbell himself said his family's well went dry two week ago. After not using it for a day, there was enough to get by as long as the family cut back on washing laundry.
   Two 13-year-olds at Little Milligan say they often haul water from Smith Spring near the elementary school and have been doing so as long as they can remember.
   Matt Stout and his family, who live in Elk Mills, drive 10 miles each way to the spring. "I remember going down there at 5 and 6 years old and getting water," Stout said. The family went to Virginia a couple of years ago "and bought a big old tank and started hauling water in it."
   Another student, Marcus Davenport, who lives in Smith Hollow, said his family hauls water to fill their water box. He remembers a time when the spring got low.
   "What it done was the rocks kind of shifted and fell in a little bit. We got up there and cleaned it out and it started running."
   The two boys look forward to one day having utility water.
   "My dad said it would be better," Davenport said.
   Stout agreed. "I'm tired of waking up in the morning and going to get a glass of water and you've got to wait 10 minutes before it comes on. Last night I went to take a shower and the water stopped completely. I had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to take one."
   Claudette Campbell, secretary at Little Milligan Elementary, said the spring in Smith Hollow once dried up in the late 1980s and area residents received permission from the owner of a cabin business on Moody Road "to let them go around the bottom side of the lake and pipe from his overflow. We'd back the trucks down and haul water from there," she said.
   "The water level at Smith Spring is dropping and as it does the spring is getting smaller and smaller. My husband hauled water in August and it was taking like 25 minutes. Now it's taking up to about 50. It's a 170 gallon tank."
   Mrs. Campbell is hopeful the community one day will have a ready supply. "I can't wait to get water, and plenty of it. My kids live in Elizabethton, and they say, 'Well, come on down and get in the Jacuzzi.' But I can't even hardly take a bath," she said.
   Carl Whaley, who lives in the Little Milligan area, recently sold the property where Smith Spring is located. Whaley, who is deaf, is a cherished member of the community. He has been hauling water since 1958.
   "Everybody loves Carl Whaley," according to Principal Campbell. "Once you meet him, he never forgets you."
   Whaley's house burned to the ground about four years ago, according to Campbell. "He took it in stride. I walked up there, because I was so sad for him, and he was standing there where the house had burned. All that was left was a phone wire and a chimney. He said, 'Campbell, why didn't you bring some weenies and we'd have had a weenie roast?' "
   Whaley has drilled three wells. "They charged him $2,100 and he didn't get a drop of water," Campbell said, "but he's never complained. He's always happy. A community is better off with the Carl Whaleys than even the precious necessity of water. One of my first winters here, I just had a few sticks of firewood on the porch. Carl drove up one night with a load of wood and said, 'Don't you know you're going to freeze to death in this weather?' "
   Campbell has lived at his present home about 23 years. "It's just common to see Carl Whaley going up and down the road hauling his water jugs. He had a well, and at the time of the earthquake in California the well went dry. Carl told me, 'Campbell, the earthquake dried my well up.' "
   Last Thursday, Whaley and Richard Dugger, who lives in the Whaley Town area, both were filling up at Smith Spring. Dugger has hauled water from there since 1992.
   "But I'm a newcomer," he said. "I used to live over there on the other side of the mountain. There was plenty of water over there." But when he moved to Reese Road, he had to start hauling.
   "I used to fill the tank up in 27 minutes. Now it takes an hour and a half. We've been in a drought, though, for three years. I've known of this spring since I was a teen-ager and I know that people have hauled out of here for at least 50 years.
   "It's the only source of water around here since TVA covered up the big springs down at Watauga Lake. Now the springs are all under water, except this one and the one that's got the big pipe in it out there on Moody Road. It shoots up out of the ground. But it goes under water, too, when the lake's up."
   The spring also is inaccessible by truck, Dugger said. "You've got to walk to it. What they ought to do is go down there and put in a water system and use these springs," Dugger said.
   He has a cistern which stores 5,000 gallons of water. "If I've got time to fill up my cistern, I don't have to haul but about once every three or four weeks. But now, it takes so long here. You just take turn about, you know? Yesterday, I came over here at 10 in the morning and I didn't get out of here until 1 p.m. because they were loading ahead of me.
   "People that don't have any storage facilities, they come down here with jugs. I've seen them come here and take out a whole pickup load of gallon jugs."
   Dugger said he has had the water at his home tested. "They said they found something in it. I don't think it was that bad -- it wasn't E coli. But I told that boy that come up there and got the samples, I said, 'You tested water for a lot of people because it all comes out of this spring right here.' "
   Drought conditions are a major concern.
   "If we don't get some rain there's going to be more people than us to hurt for water. People's wells are going dry that have never been dry before," Dugger said.
   "It's an easy $7,000 to drill a well, which, that's not bad; but it's more than we can afford. Very few people can in this part of the country," he said.