Wells are linked to a place’s past. They travel us back to an era when people’s dependence on water was different than today. In the past, people would drink water from wells and carry it home in jugs and scuttles to use it both as potable water and in household chores, while farmers irrigated their fields and breeders watered their animals with it.
Digging a well called for some good amount of skill and dexterity – from identifying the spot indicating water presence to the arduous task of constructing it. Works would begin in late summer and carry on until late October, when the water level had dropped on account of the summer drought. The skilled craftsmen were handsomely paid, yet digging was performed under very challenging circumstances, deep under the surface, with no light or ventilation, on scanty means and with the fear of landslides hovering over their heads.
Kostas Papavasiliou, nicknamed “Koriozis, the well digger from Pagida”, was born in 1919. His son, Yiannis, says: “He was the well digger for southeastern Chios, an area covering Lilikas, Kini, Patrika, Vouno, Flatsia, Nenita, Kataraktis, Pagida and Didimes. These were the villages where he either dug or drilled. In the old days, every village had a main well, or maybe a second one – actually, the number varied. In 1959, our region finally saw running water in the houses.
“In the sixties, an agriculturist named Viron Katsoyiannos ran something dubbed ‘agricultural school’ in his summer house in Rouhouni, somewhere between Pagida and Kataraktis; people would learn all sorts of skills there – pruning, grafting, you name it. After attending these ‘courses’, my father was given a ‘certificate’; ‘Koriozis is an agriculturist now, he’s even got a license’ said the villagers jokingly. He attended the school two or three times a week for a year; they would learn how to keep seeds, beet seeds, onion seeds, how to graft… Katsoyiannos would also get the students to practice the craft in his orchard in Kambos. That’s where he saw Goulas, a well digger from Thimiana, having climbed down into a sixty-feet deep well. He was using a forty-feet long rod with a steel end. A skilled digger working at the base would operate it in his thick, old-school gloves; the others working on the edge would violently drop the rod, and he was in charge of directing it to the floor so that it would eventually pierce the ground all the way through.
“That’s where my father copied the idea from. At some point, he got his hands on a rod in old Kataraktis, inside one of those ramshackle houses, and had it properly shaped in Vouno. He also had a peeled wooden fifteen-inch stick made of oleaster; he would use two fingers to hold it and squeeze it a bit until it started spinning upon picking up a magnetic field indicating the presence of water under the surface. Where abundant vegetation suggested the existence of water, he would go left and right, and when the wand started spinning harder, he would say ‘that’s were we’re digging’. Eight out of ten times, they were spot on! In our lands, they would find water within the first twenty feet, before digging further to twenty-five, thirty or more. The task was usually carried out in mid summer/early fall, when water level was low. ‘A well that still holds water in September is never going to run dry’ they used to say. If it turned out to be flooded, they had to pump it out before they could get to work. He was the first in the area to buy this special pump, in 1964.
“At first, he would only dig wells before gradually starting using that special rod for deepening wells wherever a watersource was spotted. He started off with two wells in Pagida and went on to dig many more before switching to cleaning and mending existing ones. His crew was Pipis and Kamaradis from Pagida, Samakouris from Kataraktis, Kalambakas from Flatsia and Nikolis, his father-in-law, who was a builder. These were the permanent members, and at times, a couple of more would be added to the crew. The workers would get a day’s pay but the craftsman was paid the equivalent of three. A typical well would usually take them two months to dig. His skills were in great demand.
“This wasn’t a risk-free job. One time, a well came down the moment he climbed out of it. It’s ironic: he spent his whole life doing crazy stuff, yet he managed to get killed like a fool in his sixties: in 1979, he was driving downhill in his little tractor outside Ekso Didima when the brakes failed, sending him onto his parents’ home wall and killing him on the spot.”
In the following years, Samakouris was initiated to the craft by that old crew, and went on to become a well digger. We met this kind-hearted elderly man, aged 95, as he was cleaning some mastic in his yard as the old memories came back flushing: “Oh, boy, I’ve lost count of how many wells we cleaned or dug with pickaxes, shovels and pulleys; two men would dig, with three more standing on the edge; we used planks, ropes, you name it… At Nanavrakis, we almost drowned by surging water.”
Coming across abandoned wells in plots is common nowadays; most of them are not in use anymore, some have gone dry, while others have been sealed on safety grounds, acting as a reminder of how invaluable they had been in an era when water supply networks and plumbing were non-existent. In rural areas, place names such as Kato Pigadi (t/n: Down Well), Okso Pigadi (t/n: Outside Well) and more keep reminding us of their vital role. Some old ones have been preserved, while modern equipment allows them to still cater to the needs of large gardens and orchards.