Sask. family says goodbye to original farmstead well

For the last 50 years, members of the Horne family have been avoiding going near the 100-year-old blacksmith shop that housed the original well on their farm near Swift Current in southwestern Saskatchewan.

The earth in one corner of the shop had collapsed over the years, exposing the wellhead and leaving the family wondering about the safety of the 30-inch well bore beneath.

Family and friends had often been warned not to go into the dilapidated shop lest they fall into the 110-foot well hole.

Each year, the shed slumped further into the ground, creating a 15-foot depression surrounding the wellhead. Several gnarly caraganas had twisted their branches around one corner of the shop and helped to keep the building upright.

Inside, every inch of the blacksmith shop was taken up with memories of days gone by.

Frank Biggeman cuts the well pipe inside the 100-year-old blacksmith shop before it was torn down. | Robert Horne photo

Robert Horne, the grandson of Robert Dewar Horne, who had homesteaded the land in 1905, was anxious to put the out-of-use well to rest. As luck would have it, the Saskatchewan government in 2017 had realized abandoned wells around the province were a safety concern, as well as a concern for the health of the aquifer, and promoted a funding program for the decommissioning of such wells. Horne heard about the program on a local radio station and was quick to fill out his application and begin the process of decommissioning the old well.

The initiative, funded through the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program (FRWIP), required interested farmers to submit a pre-approval worksheet outlining the plan for decommissioning.

The application required an estimate of materials needed: bentonite clay for sealing the aquifer, chlorine bleach for disinfecting the standing water and the amount of gravel and soil needed to fill the hole.

Frank Biggeman caps the hole with a layer of bentonite. | Robert Horne photo

The final application form, asking for projected costs and a diagram of the well profile, was mailed out after the pre-approval was given. A more detailed plan including the land location and location of power lines and buildings was also required.

Once Horne was sure he had the appropriate materials for the job, he started the decommissioning procedure. He enlisted the help of his son, Greg, his brother-in-law, Frank, and his partner, Bev (the author) of this story).

The first step involved removing all the material in and around the well house. As is often the case on Saskatchewan farms, nothing, especially metal parts, is ever thrown away, because it might have a use in a later project.

During cleanup, Horne told stories about parts dating back to the 1950s, from horseshoes and fork tines to pistons and engine parts. Old tools, grease guns, oil cans, cigarette tins and empty bottles filled the shelves. The project team recycled three tons of metal in Swift Current. As they picked through the piles, they saved bits and pieces that they thought might contribute to a metal sculpture to be constructed later.

The next step involved tearing down the old shop.

The front-end loader and grapple made short work of the shed. Once the team realized there was little danger of falling into the well hole, they removed the pump itself from its original galvanized pipe. Next, they pulled the sucker rod out of the pipe in increments by using the front-end loader and a logging chain. The team recovered more than 30 metres of sucker rod, but unfortunately, no pump plunger.

The project team tried valiantly to access the original 30-inch well bore. Finally, they determined the earth above had collapsed into the hole.

To verify this, they made a calculation of the approximate cone volume, which closely matched the original well bore volume. They were satisfied it was a collapsed well and the only access to the aquifer was through the remaining galvanized pipe.

Bentonite chips were slowly poured into the hole through the pipe. The project team used the remainder of the bentonite clay to cap off the bottom of the collapsed cone. They added a layer of concrete, followed by gravel and earth to cap off the well.

Frank and Beverly Biggeman add bentonite chips to the well pipe. | Robert Horne photo

A few days after Horne and his team had finished cleaning up the worksite, he decided to tackle the metal sculpture project.

A generous pile of pieces had been saved because of their unique look or their integral role in the farming operation. The concept of a deer-like structure was conjured as a tribute to the number of deer inhabiting the area.

The legs were constructed of blacksmithing stands with horseshoes welded on for feet. Three-tined pitch fork ends formed the ribs of the deer, while a cutter bar guard became the neck, wrenches were used for collar bones, harness parts for shoulders and old pail handles framed the face. Binder gears made up eyes and an old rusty axe head was added for a nose. Blacksmith tongs were used to form the top of the head. Machinery brackets made antlers, and flat wrenches completed the points on the antlers. Brass bells from harness parts and a tire wrench used as a tail completed the picture.

When all was said and done, the sculpture was named Smithy, in honor of the blacksmith shop. Smithy stands outside the living room window of the Robert Horne house, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year.

Robert Horne works on Smithy, a sculpture he created from old parts salvaged from the blacksmith shop in which the well had been housed. | Beverly Biggeman photo

Every time a project is completed on the farm, Horne and family are reminded of the stories that reside in the buildings and the land. No piece of history is ever completely done away with. The family always honours those who came before them.

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