Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dowsing in Westerville

A piece I had published in the newsletter of the Westerville Historical Society.

Emery Westervelt and the Dowser by Alan Borer

In 1849, Emery Westervelt wrote a curious letter to the Ohio Cultivator, arguably the state’s most widely read agricultural journal of its day. Emery was a son of Matthew Westervelt, the early settler who gave his name (among other things) to our fair city. When he wrote the aforementioned letter, he was living with his wife Caroline on a farm. The farm was on State Street somewhere north of Uptown, but still in Franklin County.

To summarize the letter, Emery Westervelt wanted to build a barn. And to have a proper barn, one needed a water source for one’s livestock. So even before building the barn, he had to find a suitable place to dig a well. In 1848, he dug two trial holes, one at the southwest corner of his proposed barn, and one at the northwest. Neither provided enough water for a well: “Looking upon well-digging as an unprofitable business for me, I quit it for the time, and went to work at my barn.”

In the fall of 1849, Westervelt tried again. This time he consulted “an old gentleman in the neighborhood who has the name of being a successful ‘water witch,’ or practitioner with the peach limb.” The man spent an hour with a peach limb, possibly forked, wandering over the Westervelt farm. He then showed Emery where to dig. Westervelt dug in the spot on the south side of the barn where the dowser told him he would find a vein of water underground. Digging down 11 feet, he struck water enough to fill ten barrels a day.

Westervelt had written his letter to ask if there was science behind dowsing or if his water witch had just made a lucky guess. The journal rejected the notion that one could find water by carrying a peach stick. Modern scientists are divided over whether there is anything to dowsing. As a story, however, it is useful in bringing a vanished, rural Westerville of barns and magic before our eyes. If you try dowsing today, check with PUCO first.

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