Public Tap from Dania Patricia Maxwell on Vimeo.
A free and public drinking water source in Buchtel, Ohio.
Rodney Galinten drives his fire red truck along a concrete road in Buchtel, southeast Ohio. In the truck bed, 18 one-gallon plastic jugs reflect a pastel colored mid-morning sun, uncovered by clouds. Empty, and contained by two plastic crates, they shudder with the intermittent roar of the engine. The once sky blue caps have faded to pastel. The jugs have long been emptied of the 2% milk for which they were originally purchased. Now, bouncing along these Buchtel roads, carrying water is their new purpose.
Rodney makes his way past a Marathon Oil gas station that dominates the main road in Buchtel. Small houses and trailers, none of which have surrounding fences, scatter the landscape like a checkerboard. He turns left onto Franklin Street from Marietta Avenue and arrives at what Buchtel inhabitants call the “watering trough,” a source of free and public drinking water.
The water at the trough gushes nonstop from three holes dug out from a concrete structure and splashes into a rectangular bathtub-sized catch basin underneath. In the center of the basin, a rusting drain remains continuously open, so the tub never overflows. The walls, streaked with moss, are covered by cracks that resemble the wrinkles that have creased Rodney’s face over time. A yellow paint that once covered the grey concrete has turned soft and been chipped by the everlasting rush of water. Wild, overgrown grass grows in patches around the structure.
Rodney has been fetching his drinking water from the trough all his life. He says, “that water they sell at the store [is] the biggest brain washing job they ever done on the world. They get that water from some municipal water system and put it in a bottle. They tell ya it’s some natural spring water and all it is, is city water. It just amazes me what they can brainwash the public on sometime.”
In 1938 the World Progress Administration (WPA) built the current concrete structure for the trough. “It’s getting old, and showing a little wear,” said Rodney. “There is still a couple old gentlemen up here that said that when they grew up horses would drink from one end and children would drink from the other.”
Anywhere between 50 and 100 people visit the trough each day. They come from near and far. Rodney is inquisitive, routinely asking his fellow water fetchers where they are from.
“I was out there a little while ago and I saw three people getting water and one waiting. So, I pulled up there on the little side road. There was one from McArther, one from Columbus, one from Amesville, and I don’t remember where the other was from, right off. But, they come from everywhere around here to get water.”
The reasons patrons visit the trough vary. Certainly, the fact that the water is free is attractive. Buchtel is nestled inside Athens County, a place where 75% of residents are living below the poverty line. Many who are in financial need avoid purchasing store bought water, and save a few dollars each month using trough water. Some use the water to fill their fish tanks, feed their horses, or they even use the water for their morning coffee. Other people come to the trough to avoid using the city water. Rodney says that the city sends “letters [that] tell you what all is in that water, and what all side effects you may get. The letter basically says you can drink it, but it will kill you eventually.”
Although there is usually more than one car parked in front of the trough, Rodney’s is the only one today. He carefully backs his truck next to the trough, making it easier for him to carry the crates when they are full of water.
Today, Rodney is collecting water for his 80-year-old friend, Harvey Dupler. Harvey cannot drive to the Buchtel spring anymore, so Rodney does the pickup for him. Every other week, Rodney fills 18 water jugs for Harley.
“We’ve been friends all my life,” Rodney said. Going to the water trough for Harvey is “just something I do.”
Rodney plunges a homemade funnel – the top half of a 2-gallon soda bottle tipped upside down and a plastic hose – into one of the rushing watering holes. This style of funnel is common amongst those who fill up regularly at the watering trough. Water rushes out from around the funnel and through the bottom-end of the tube, as he fills one bottle with water while peeling the cap off the next.
The water at the trough is piped to the surface from an abandoned mine that now serves as a holding tank for the hillside water. Years ago, when the coal mine was in operation, water began seeping into the shafts. The coal company tried, unsuccessfully, to stymie the water from pouring into the mine. The water prevailed and the company closed the mine. Water filled the shaft and the coal company constructed a pipe to guide the water to the surface for all to enjoy.
The water quality is often tested by Monday Creek Restoration Project in New Straightsville, a town located a few miles north of Buchtel. The organization is dedicated to the restoration and protection of water sources in the area. It is trying to reverse acid mine drainage, a bitter side-effect of environmentally unsustainable coal mining. Acid mine drainage occurs when water mixes with air and pyrite, a substance found in coal. Together, the three elements create sulfuric acid, and rubs into the natural water that seeps out the hillside, or in springs.
In the 1860’s coal mining became the dominant industry of southeast Ohio. Coal companies sucked natural resources out from the land through tunnels that they dug into the ground. After WWII, heavier coal extracting machinery swept back through areas of southeast Ohio to scavenge any coal left behind. Surface mining became common procedure, and without any environmental regulations, the companies chiseled away at the ecosystem.
Once the coal had been extracted from the land, the corporations exited, leaving a skeleton of mining shafts and the community of people who had remained. “Some of the coal towns survived and others completely disappeared,” said Rodney. Though the population of Buchtel has been dwindling since the 1920’s, it is the one town in the area that has survived.
Coal mining in Buchtel is gone, and while many of its harmful remnants remain in the surrounding hills, the water at the Buchtel trough is different. The water completely floods the underground mine – without even an air bubble at the surface. Without air, the pyrite does not turn to sulfuric acid, leaving the water filtered and fresh, without the poisonous mixture. Monday Creek Restoration Project has determined that although the water streaming from the trough has a higher metal content than your normal household tap, it meets water quality standards and is certainly good enough to drink.
Once all the bottles are filled, Rodney slams them back into the truck and starts the ignition. Like raindrops falling along a window, condensation drips from the exterior of the bottles. He drives in silence, listening only to the sounds of the coming season that breathe through the air.
He shows no signs of being rushed. Passing a cemetery along Garden Hill Buchtel Road, where generations of his family are buried, he is 10 clicks under the 35-mile speed limit. His eyes scan the road and its perimeter. On the right, water seeps out from the hillside. The fallen leaves and brush are wet from the continual trickle of the water. “It’s not drinkable,” Rodney says. “It’s toxic, not like watering trough water.”
Rodney pulls into Harley’s driveway. A single chair sits empty under an unlit porch light. Harley is inside, sitting at his table, sipping on a cup of black coffee, made from Buchtel water.
Rodney carries two crates holding the jugs into Harley’s kitchen and joins Harley. Together they scan through calendars from years past. It’s mushroom hunting season and they are trying to determine, from the calendar’s archive, the best time to gather them.
The phone rings and Harley struggles to understand the strong voice streaming out from his speakerphone. A woman on the other end of the line is offering Harley life insurance. The woman tells Harley he should be thinking about the price of his funeral. He hangs up. “Why would I want life insurance when I’m half dead already”? Harley resumes his spot at the head of the table with Rodney.
Rodney and Harley converse with ease. They speak of their plans for a steak dinner later in the evening, and decide on a day for the mushroom hunt. Rodney says Buchtel was a much different town when he met Harley. In its early years, Buchtel was self-sufficient. Though there was a train that came through town, the people living there had no reason to leave. The coal company had built a school and a church. Coal companies erected a hundred homes in the area for the miners who worked in debt.
“If you lived around here 130 years ago, all it was, was a company-built coal mining town,” says Rodney. An old song, known in the area, goes
I can't afford to die.
I owe my soul to the company store.
“People knew everybody back then,” explains Rodney. “If you was a little kid and got in trouble, mom would know about it on the other end of the town before you got home and there wasn’t even telephones.”
Nowadays, the watering trough is a remnant of the interconnected past. There, one can find a community of people sharing, if only for a moment, the common need of water.