Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

A World Without Electricity

A series of comments following a recent post got me thinking about just how recent things like hand-pumped water and animal power are.

  1. I am 58 years old
  2. My father was born in 1914
  3. His father was born in 1877
  4. His grandfather was born in 1846

I could go on, but my point is that my father, as a child talking with his grandfather, connects me with a man who served in the Army of the Confederate States of America. Let’s look at the way life worked in just my father’s era.

  • He was born on a farm in Alabama and moved to Florida in 1920 in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules. His father knew that covered wagons worked fine for those who settled the American West, so he simply copied the idea to move his own family farther South.
  • He was raised on a farm that had no electricity until the time he returned home from college (late 1930’s).
  • The running water the family had was furnished by a windmill. The shower was a water spigot beneath the water tank.
  • The family plowed the fields using a mule until they could afford a tractor.
  • As was commonly done in the early 20th Century, the family produced much of their own food, and would trade and buy and sell for other items they needed.

As we sit in an air-conditioned room, using a computer giving instant communications to just about anywhere in the world, it is easy to forget just how recent this is. Even though I have not yet reached the age of 60, computers were hardly known by most folks when I was in school. It was the slide rule – not the computer or even the calculator – that represented technology for most people.

What prompted this line of thought was considering how radical a shift it would be to live in a world without electricity. There are several scenarios that could result in the near-total loss of electrical power. These are not some wild science fiction plots, but very real possibilities. Low probability perhaps, but very real and very possible. How would we get from where we are now to where life would be considered “normal” without electricity?

Although the ability to survive under such conditions is not the primary reason for Southern Agrarianism, it is a nice “fringe benefit.” Living close to the land and enjoying the simplicity of older technology provides a bridge between today and an uncertain tomorrow. Southern Agrarianism is more than just a life style of simplicity with roots deep in Southern soil – it also provides a high level of preparedness for uncertain times.


  1. Wyandotte

    Hope I am posting in the right place, since you do have a photo of an old-fashioned pump. I can’t see how those are useful for a 200+ foot deep well. Only good for surface water, which in this day & age you would have to boil & disinfect, etc.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      You’re thinking of pitcher pumps where the pump is up at the surface and the pump pulls water by suction. Those are mainly used for pulling water from a cistern or from very shallow surface water (which is seldom good drinking water anyway).

      On the pumps that I have, what you see on the surface is not the actual pump. What is at ground level is just the mechanical part that powers a cylinder pump which is down below the surface of the water. From ground level down to the actual pump is a drop pipe with a sucker rod inside it. The sucker rod moves up and down, which powers the cylinder pump down below the static water level. That up and down movement can be supplied by hand power, a windmill, or a motor attached to a pump jack.

      The wells here are about 120′, but the water level is at about 72′ – far deeper than a pitcher pump could do (about 15′ as a practical limit). Since a cylinder pump pushes the water up with pressure rather than pulling it up with suction, the practical limit is far deeper. A 200′ well should be no problem at all.

  2. Wyandotte

    Didn’t know any of this! As to the hand powered option, how long would you have to pump before you actually get some water? Just curious – not complaining. This sounds like a good idea. Everyone I know with a deep well is totally dependent on electrical being being there all the time.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      How long do I have to pump before getting water? Oh, I’d guess about 3 seconds – just long enough to move the handle up and down one time. That’s how it works here anyway. For those in cold country, there is usually a weep hole drilled in the drop pipe just below the frost line so that it doesn’t freeze. When you stop pumping, the water drains down to the weep hole after several minutes. You would need to pump a couple of strokes to get it going again.

      Much depends on how the pump is set up. My first hand pump was very much a “do it yourself” job, and it was not only very hard to pump, it would drain down to the static water level after a day or so of non-use. At that point, it took exactly 21 full strokes to get water. The new pumps have lower volume per stroke, so that would need to be factored in there also.

      I am very pleased with the hand pumps that I have now. My thinking is that, should the situation arise where power is out for an extended period of time, those who live in the same area (we are on a dirt road with maybe 10 to 20 families on it) would be welcome to use it to pump all the water they can carry. We would have to set a specific time when it becomes a “public well”, and probably have some sort of security arrangements, but that would also be a good way for everyone in the area to keep in touch with the situation. Being someone who is an asset to the community is a good way to make sure that neighbors look out for my best interest, so my motivation is more than just being a nice guy.

  3. Wyandotte

    Thank you so much for all this info! One fine day, God willing & the crick don’t rise, I hope to retire to a pretty isolated place where I own property. And there really is a “crick” on that land that does rise, sometimes, in the spring. Oh, well.

    I like your idea for sharing your well. That is quite all right that it’s not totally about you being a nice guy. We have to look after our own interests and in this case, others benefit. What’s not to love about your plan. Maybe, if someone decides to get mad at you about something, they could hijack the well. Oh, my anxious woman’s mind is getting away on me.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Glad to help, Wyandotte. By the way, here’s a bit of trivia for you: The saying, “Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise” actually refers to the Creek Indians rising up rather than a “crick” overflowing its banks. There’s got to be some good reason to know that kind of stuff, but I haven’t got a clue what it might be…

  4. matronofhusbandry

    Are hydraulic rams used in your area? Where I live in Pacific Northwest hydraulic rams where common before electricity came in, circa mid 1940’s. We still use our hydraulic ram for our homestead and livestock water supply. It’s nice to not be dependent on electricity to supply our water.

    Love your blog BTW.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

      No, this area is too flat to make use of a hydraulic ram. As I understand it, a ram makes use of the water pressure generated by being piped from a higher location. A portion of that water is pumped through the system to a level higher than the original source while the rest of the water is discharged after powering the ram. We just don’t have the elevation differences here to make that work. What we do have though, is the Florida Aquifer, which is an enormous “sponge” of limestone filled with water. You’ve probably seen video of people diving in the caves under the surface (I did some of that myself years ago). They are swimming in the Florida Aquifer. I feel pretty confident about that being a long-term reliable water supply.

      Thanks for stopping by – I’m looking forward to the chance to take a tour of “Throwback At Trapper Creek”.

  5. matronofhusbandry

    I have seen the videos of the Florida Aquifer, very amazing I must say.

    You’re absolutely correct about the steep terrain. The brand of ram we have will lift water 10′ for every foot of drop, and we need to lift ours 125′ to our holding tank. Pretty simple technology really.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I was fascinated by the concept of the hydraulic ram when I first read about it as a teenager. What a let-down to learn that it wouldn’t work here in Flat Florida. Oh well…

  6. Amanda

    So funny I was reading thru some of the blogs and ran across this one. I’m from Alabama and a lot of the well water and fresh springs are contaminated because of all the road construction going on,So sad.There are only a handful of springs left in the northwest part.Our new farm we are moving to has a well we think and I;m going to have to have it tested.I am hoping its not contaminated.But i would love to be able to pump water from it!

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