Meeting Millard Simpson

I got the call last night. Joanie told me that Millard had passed on. He'd had the pneumonia she said and I knew that is what often takes the old folks. After I hung up, I sat on the couch and remembered when Millard had dowsed out my well a couple of years after we had moved here. My goodness, has six years gone by so quickly?

For about two years, we had been hauling drinking water and collecting rainwater for our needs. We were really sick of hauling water, so Larry began to ask around about who could dowse. Nearly everyone gave us the same name, Millard Simpson. “If there is water, Millard will find it!” we were told over and over.

Larry contacted Millard and after a few visits, Millard agreed he would look for water for us. He wasn't promising anything mind you, but he had not been wrong either, he allowed. I was looking forward to meeting Millard.

It was a beautiful, warm and sunny the day Millard came out. Puffy white clouds moved along on the breeze that rustled through the leaves now and again. Just enough breeze to keep it comfortable. Larry had already gone over to Millard's house to pick him up. I hurried through my chores so I could enjoy the spectacle that was about to unfold. I had fed and watered the turkeys and chickens and gathered the eggs. The dogs had been fed and carefully penned to keep them out of the way and the cat had made itself scarce. He could tell something big was going to happen and wanted no part of it. I rinsed up the breakfast dishes, threw a dishtowel over them, and left them draining in the sink. A quick pickup through, sweep up the floor and I was done. I waited impatiently.


I went to the door as soon as the car stopped. Larry went around and opened the passenger door and I saw two canes pop out, then a pair of feet.” My goodness I thought, he is awfully old! I sure hope he doesn't fall because I don't have insurance yet. Larry carefully helped him out. Millard stood up, stretched a little and looked around. He sniffed the air and took a deep breath. “It smells nice and clear here.” He pronounced. I came around the car and Larry introduced me. I was surprised at the strength of his handshake. He looked so frail as he leaned heavily on his canes. Although he moved slowly with effort, one could sense he had been a physically powerful man in his younger years. His voice was a bit loud because his hearing was a bit dim but not unpleasant to listen to.

Larry showed him the general area where it would be convenient for the well to be located. Millard chuckled softly and remarked, “The water is where it is, convenient or not.” He shuffled around the ground a little with Larry and a friend (who had come over to watch the show too) close to his elbows to steady him if he needed it. I was sending up dart prayers with every step. “Please Lord, don't let him fall and get hurt.” He turned to Larry and asked him to cut an apple switch with a fork about so long, and spread his hands to show the right length. Then he told Larry to get a Witch Hazel twig about 8 to 10 inches long. He said that would tell us how deep the vein of water was. I knew about the switch of apple for dowsing, but I had never heard of the twig method of divining how deep the water was. My skin tingled for a moment, I'm not sure if it got to the gooseflesh stage or not, but I knew I was about to witness something amazing.

As Larry went off to cut the switch, Millard and I chatted. He told me stories about how it was when he was a boy. He told me about his father, Isaac, and the photographs he took. He told me where different farms had been and he told me how to find where he was pretty sure the original Cone place was. He finished every story with the remark, “Of course, it is all changed around now. Nothing is what it was like.” I remembered my great-grandfather saying the same thing nearly word for word when he talked about his days as a woodsman, “Of course, it is all changed around now.” I believe Millard told me he was about 92.

Larry came back with the branches; Millard carefully inspected them and allowed they would serve the purpose. You had the subtle feeling they were not quite up to par, not as good as the ones he would have picked out to cut; had he been able. Nevertheless, they would do. He slowly began shuffling ahead (“Please God, don't let him fall down!” echoed in my head), moving forward just inches at a time. Not exactly what I had expected, not like in the movies at all. Just an old man shuffling aimlessly over the uneven ground was all I saw. (“Please God, don't let him fall down!”)

Wham! He suddenly jerked forward and down. It was as if something lying on the ground had reached up, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and yanked him over. I was sure he was going to hit the ground but he let go of one of the ends of the branch and immediately straightened up. He came up like one of those inflatable bobbing punch clowns; I thought he was going right over backwards he came up so fast. (“Please God, don't let him fall over!” my mind screamed.) He beamed proudly, gave me a rakish grin and said, “Did you see that! Still got the touch!” My jaw must have been hanging to my knees. His eyes twinkled as he laughed and said, “Watch this.”

He took hold of the other end of the switch and it pulled him downward until he let go. Then he bobbed back up with a chuckle. I was dumb founded. I could tell he was getting ready to put on a performance the likes none of us had ever seen before. He did it a couple of more times to show off. He stepped back, the point of the fork went up, he stepped forward and it pulled him right over. Let go of one fork and up he would bob. Somehow, he made it to the other side of the vein without it dragging him to the ground. As soon as he stepped out of the water line the switch went straight up in the air pulling his arms right up, I had a fleeting mental image of it pulling him right over backwards. He let go of one of the ends seemingly just in time to keep from going over. It was as if we were watching an excellent mime perform. I would never have believed the stiff arthritic old man that Larry had to help out of our car could possibly be so limber. Millard laughed with glee.

There were a few other people standing around watching and they had the same stupid look of surprise on their face as I did. With a grin and a flourish, he did it one more time. “Show off.” I thought. He shuffled around a bit more, turned to Larry, and said; “Young fella, the water comes from this way” He pointed towards the garden and made a line across the yard to where we were standing. “It goes on over to there.” he pointed to the damp spot down across the driveway where the fiddleheads come up in the spring. “You can find water anywhere along this line, it's just a matter of how deep you have to go.” He looked to me and said, “Young lady, where would you like to have your well?” “Right where you are would be just fine with me, Millard.” I replied. (“Please God, don't let him fall down.” still thumped gently in the back of my head.)

Then the fun began. Millard got a sly look in his eyes. “Here,” he said, “Take hold of this one of you young fellas. You can do it too if you want to.” He held out the forked switch; at first, no one wanted to touch it. They looked like he was asking them to grab a rattlesnake or something worse. Finally, someone got brave and took it. Millard showed him how to hold it and told him, “Just walk where I was walking. You can't help but feel it.” He took the switch that Millard held out; and walked, and walked, and walked. Millard chuckled and said, “What's the mater with you, can't you feel it? Give 'er here, I'll show you again!” He took the switch, took a couple of unsteady steps and over he was pulled. That is just what it looked like. Like something grabbed the end of that switch and yanked straight down. “Can't you feel that tugging?” Millard asked. “Nope, don't feel a thing,” was the reply as the switch went from person to person. Everyone wanted to try it. They walked all around and no one admitted to feeling a thing.

Now it was time for Act II: How far down was the water? Millard said he needed to sit down and we took him back to the car. He sat on the passenger seat facing his audience. He carefully scanned each face as we anxiously awaited the magician's next trick. He balanced the twig over his thumb and forefinger. It sat steady for a second or two and then began to bob up and down. Millard counted aloud to 22 dips, and then it stopped. We all stood there staring at the end of the little twig, but it did not budge a bit. “Twenty-two feet is where you will find water on this spot. Twenty-two feet or there abouts, but I am pretty sure it is twenty-two feet. Of course I could be all wrong you know.” he stated. “Wrong my foot you old rascal,” I thought, “You know to the quarter inch where that water is in any direction I'll bet” He repeated the act and it stopped at 22 dips again. He showed his admiring audience how it was done, but no one could duplicate his feat.

We stood around talking and swapping stories for probably about another hour before Millard said he had better get home before Marguerite started worrying about him. We tried to pay him but Millard waved us away. He thanked us for the opportunity get out and have a little fun. Then Larry took him back home.

A few weeks later, we started digging the well with our backhoe. We got down to about eighteen feet and the rocks were getting too big for our little backhoe to handle. We called in an excavator and he dug to about twenty-one feet and hit solid ledge. There we sat with a dry hole on top of ledge. It had been the driest summer in a long time. However, as we had dug down, we could see damp patches on the sides of the hole. Never any puddle, just damp spots on the sides. We set the well tile anyway. To make a long story short, the well filled up, and we have never had a bit of trouble with it. It has always provided water, even when other dug wells went dry; we had lots of clean, cold, fresh water. Thank you, Millard.

Written by Debra Cone