A Story in a Stick

A story by Jim Moulton from 1982

A story about Thurman Skelton of Bowdoin, Maine - Dowser.

My name is Jim Moulton, and I’d like to share a story that is in this V-shaped stick that has hung near the chimney in our house for nearly four decades.

In summer of 1982 I started work on building our family’s home in Bowdoin, Maine. Wendell Card had put in the driveway the previous fall, making my next major investment a drilled well. Rodney Pratt owned C&R Well Drilling in Bowdoin at that time, so he came to scout the site and help me understand what might be involved.

As we looked at the lay of the land and discussed approximate locations, I was more than a little surprised when Rodney asked me if I had had the property dowsed to identify a location for the well. While I had heard of dowsers, I have to admit I thought of dowsing as a bit of a scam. But Rodney was the guy who would drill the well, the guy who had drilled many wells in the area, so if he suggested getting the property dowsed, I would do it. To get this done, he suggested I reach out to another Bowdoin resident, Thurman Skelton.

When I called him on the phone, Thurman readily agreed to come out to the property. In advance of the time and date we agreed on, I envisioned his set of dowsing rods - they would obviously be old, metal, and "magical" looking, and would be brought out of a leather or canvas case when it was time. I imagined there would be a period of stillness as he prepared himself to receive the message the water would send to him through those rods. These images must have come from a movie I’d seen or a book I’d read, because my projection went so far as to see those rods, held loosely in Thurman’s lightly closed fists, slowly swing into a cross above the spot where the well should go, and included my driving a stake in the ground as a mark.

When the day came, things went very differently than I had imagined. Thurman was a man of few words - wiry, white haired, quick. He got out of his truck and I showed him roughly where the house and septic system were going to be. He nodded, pulled out a jackknife, and cut off a thin maple sapling with two leaders. The sapling was cut off just below the junction of the leaders, which were cut off about eighteen inches out. And with that, his V-shaped dowsing rod was ready. There was no hesitation, he simply held the two leaders in his hands, fingers up and curled back towards him, thumbs to the sides, and began to walk around slowly.

I’m not sure if I first saw or heard what happened next. The tip of the V dipped, and I heard, yes heard, the maple branches squeak as they rotated in his tightly closed hands. "Yep," Thurman said, "there it is." Once one axis was made clear, the path of a water stream within the earth, he crossed the line a few times to find an intersection. When that was found, a handful of white marble chips were dropped on top of the leaves and pine needles to mark the spot. Done.

A week or so later Rodney arrived with the drilling rig, and he spent about half a day positioning his rig so as to drop the drill directly down onto the spot marked by Thurman’s white marble chips. The result was our 160’ foot well, still delivering, thirty nine years later, a seemingly endless supply of clear, soft, sweet tasting water.

(Post-script: More than a decade later, in the mid-1990s, Thurman came into my Grade Three classroom at Bowdoin Central School as a resource story teller during a local history project. One story he shared of his childhood in Bowdoin gave me some insight around his dowsing ability. He told how, as a boy, he would take hold of a "bull fence," a high voltage electric fence, without feeling the charge. He described, to my wide-eyed third graders, how this ability allowed him to stand in a stream and spread the strands apart, telling his friends the fence was off and so it was safe to come through. When his friends were astraddle the lower strand, he would release the fence. He smiled as he told the story, no doubt remembering how the resulting shock would have sent the other boys flying.)

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