For years, Uncle Harold thought about building a house on the woodchopper's old woodlot. But never in his wildest dreams did he believe he'd need a dowser to get it done.
The wooded 40 acres and its tar-paper shack had entered Uncle Harold's life in the late 1920s, when his father sought a simple weekend retreat from the complexities of modern life. The woodchopper's place that Grandpa found, in rural Foster, R.I., had simplicity, all right - no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no running water.
For decades, the lack of water was only a minor annoyance to the family, who happily toted jugs of it every weekend. In exchange, they soaked up longed-for solitude and a bonus - history.
Along the land's north edge ran Biscuit Hill Road, which had been a main north-south thoroughfare in Colonial times. But by the 1920s, it was a nearly impassable dirt lane.
Tradition, they discovered, says that during the Revolutionary War a Colonial army was marching up the highway when the cook's wagon tipped over at a sharp turn, spilling biscuits onto the road. Romantics say that's what gave Biscuit Hill Road its name.
Pragmatists say otherwise, that the name stems from winter's vista, when hills to the south, peeking through leafless trees, line up like biscuits in a tray. But this explanation was always too pedestrian for Uncle Harold, who loved both history and a good tale. "So you know which story I believe," he would say.
Down the hill from Biscuit Hill Road, the family discovered Turkey Neck Run, the foundation of a grain mill the stream had powered in the early 1800s, and two discarded millstones. Either stone, Uncle Harold thought, would make a perfect hearth once he'd built his dream house.
That time came in the early 1950s. He and Aunt Peggy chose their spot carefully. It would be close enough to Victory Highway, high-crowned and paved, to tap its overhead electrical wires. And they'd have a view: The tray of biscuits lay directly beyond their kitchen window. The only other thing they would need was water.
So they called in hydrologists, who came laden with maps, charts, and fancy college degrees. They tramped the oak-and-pine woods, squinted at their charts, and shook their heads: "Very sorry," they intoned, "but there's no water on your land." He would have to build elsewhere.
When Uncle Harold told this sad tale in town the next morning, someone said "Sounds like a job for Cyrus Spinks." Cyrus, he added, was a retired dowser.
Uncle Harold was dubious at best, but having nothing to lose, went to see Cyrus anyway. Cyrus said "ayuh," he'd help. He was white-haired and craggy featured.
Tied to his belt was a worn leather pouch that clinked when he walked. It held 20 silver dollars and was his guarantee: He'd give the contents to anyone who didn't find water as promised.
How often had he had to empty it? "Never," he told Uncle Harold proudly.
The next morning, Cyrus came to the woodlot, set the pouch on a granite rock, and got right to work. No charts. No maps. No college degree. Just an old pocket knife, with which he hacked a forked branch from a supple sapling and stripped it of twigs, producing the tool of his trade - a dowsing rod.
Holding one stubby end of the fork in each hand, with the long end pointing straight ahead and parallel to the ground, he began to walk the property.
Suddenly, the long end began to dip, moving ever lower. "Here's water," he sang out to Uncle Harold, whose rubbery face was contorted in amazement. Cyrus kept walking, and the end came back up: "It's an underground stream, and I've just crossed it."
Back and forth, Cyrus crisscrossed the land. Up and down the end glided, until he had mapped the stream. Finally, he stopped and pointed: "Drill here." A certain number of feet down, he said, "you'll find a trickle," but not enough for a household. Drill 50 feet more, "and you'll have all the water you would ever need."
Then he astonished Uncle Harold even more. There's no trick to dowsing, he insisted: "You can do it, too." Hacking off another branch, he thrust the fork into the younger man's hands. "Now walk," he said.
Sure enough, as the fledgling dowser reached the underground stream, the end dipped inexorably. Like his teacher, the protege walked back and forth, the stick dipping and leveling. His work over, Cyrus picked up the leather pouch and left.
Well drillers came and bored. At the first depth Cyrus had mentioned, water trickled in. At the second - a gusher. All you would ever need.
Nearly three decades later, Uncle Harold sat in the living room of the house that, in the intervening years, he and Aunt Peggy had largely built themselves. He sat and looked across the millstone hearth at Peggy, washing dishes in the water Cyrus Spinks had found, the water that had made their dream house possible. "I didn't believe it then," he said of the dowsing experience, "and I don't really believe it now.
"But one thing I'm sure of: That's exactly what happened."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor