© 2011 Story and Photo By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE TO READERS: This feature article first appeared in the Pecos Enterprise in 1986. Shortly thereafter, it was distributed on the Associated Press wire and was published in various newspapers throughout Texas (and I do not know how much further afield). Howard Collier was 66 years old when this article and photo were published. The story he related to me below simply flowed from his lips and thus rendered it probably the easiest writing I have ever done, and the most fun. He was quite a genial man; and I treasure the brief acquaintance we shared.
Some of you might wonder why the paragraphs are as brief as they are. Well, that is newspaper style: it is a technique for augmenting readability. And, while it is true that I have condensed previous posts, retrieved from my stash of old newspaper articles, by combining paragraphs into “literary style”, in this instance I have retained newspaper style because so much of it involves quotations. Also, I believe that here at least the old journalistic dictum “white space is good” does speed up compre-hension.
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PECOS, Texas — Some people search for a scientific basis for dowsing — or “water witching”, as it is often called.
But not Howard Collier of Pecos. He just accepts it as a gift
Still, he is aware of the explanations others have come up with for people who profess to have the power to find underground water with a divining rod. “It has something to do with the magnetism in that stick and in your body and in that water vein down there that causes the stick to come down,” he said.
The 66-year-old rancher said that he learned about water-witching and that he had the gift when he was 20.
Collier was working that summer on his father’s Screwbean Ranch in northeast Culberson county. Early one fall day, he and the foreman rode horseback to a site on the ranch where his father had built a dirt tank.
“It was the tail end of a terrible drought,” he recalled. “The soil scientists had concluded we needed to conserve soil moisture better than we had.
“So the government had come in with the Triple-A program — what’s now called the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) — and part of that program was the ‘dirt works’ program. There were thousands of miles of terraces in West Texas. And they built spreader dams and dirt tanks.
“Just two weeks before, my father and I had ridden out to see it. The thing was about two hundred feet square and about ten feet deep with sloping sides. There had been some good rains and it was full. The water had backed up about a quarter mile past this dirt dam.
“But two weeks later, when Charlie Greer, the foreman, and I rode out there, there was not a drop of water. Instead, there was a hole in the middle of it where the water had slumped.”
Collier said he was shocked by the sight. “My goodness,” he told Greer, “with all this trouble, all this expense, it might be just as cheap to dig a water well.”
“Yeah,” said Greer, “but it might help if you water-witch for it first.”
“What do you mean?” said Collier, who had never heard the phrase before.
“Well, get down off your horse and let’s find us a greasewood forked limb,” Greer replied.
After cutting two forked limbs, Greer showed the young man how to hold the witching stick. Together they walked over a part of the ranch where the terrain showed promise of good water.
Suddenly Collier’s stick started pulling down toward the ground, so much that he had to use force to hold it straight in front of him. The experience frightened him, he said.
“I could see it in your face,” Greer said. “Consider yourself lucky. That forked stick doesn’t work for everybody.”
Collier did not make much of the occasion at the time, he says now, “It was just an event in my life.”
More important was the experience of the Dust Bowl, the creation of the terraces, windmills and dirt tanks. “As a teen-ager in the Dust Bowl days, I learned how precious water is to a rancher in West Texas,” he said. “Since that time, there’s been a lot of water wells drilled and water storage tanks and water troughs built.”
In the 1960s, Collier decided he wanted to locate windmills on his home ranch in Reeves County and irrigation wells at the ranch headquarters on Toyah Creek. A brother-in-law, Fred Armstrong, did the engineering work, and Collier did the water-witching.
“By 1970, I’d water-witched about ten wells for us and other people,” Collier said. “Of course, that’s not many, but they all turned out to be good wells.”
Compared with some dowsers he has known, most of whom are dead now, Collier considers himself an amateur. “These old water-well drillers, they had that science,” he said. “After you told one of them about where you wanted the well and had staked it off, he’d say, ‘I’d better get a water witch,’ and he might move it over a hundred feet or more from where you had indicated.”
Every water witch prefers a certain type of wood for the forked stick. Hackberry is a common source, Collier said, as is the peach tree. “I like greasewood,” he said.
Others forgo wood altogether, preferring metal rods. “Some people swear by brass welding rods,” Collier said.
Although most scientists dismiss any physical reality in dowsing, a few do not discount it so readily. Zaboj V. Harvalik, a retired University of Missouri physicist, thinks it is real. Harvalik’s experiments have indicated that a person holding a dowsing stick can detect buried electric wires, apparently because the human body is sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the currents flowing through wires. Since water, ores and other buried substances also affect the magnetic field, Harvalik suggests, dowsing has a physical explanation.
Still, Collier’s accounts of what a few of the “old-timers” could do tests open-minded credulity. Collier said, “Some people could take a single stick and count the number of bobs the limb would make to the ground and, when it ceased bobbing up and down, they could tell you where to drill the well and how deep it was to water.”
— Pecos Enterprise, November 19, 1986