Water Witching: Fact or Fiction?

Frank Simpson

By: Scarlett Lynn Howell

Water is ubiquitous. Mankind uses water to launch shuttles into space, extinguish raging fires, transport billions of dollars in international cargo thousands of miles, brew our favorite coffees, and grow life-sustaining crops.

With over half of our bodies being composed of water, it is no mystery why we are drawn to it with a force only matched by the sustained presence of gravity itself.  Water is the epitome of our existence.

Sustained presence, an oxymoron maybe? Given that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t have access to an adequate supply of clean water, perhaps it is. So not only is mankind drawn, we are also on a continuous quest for this preserver of life.

One may ask, just how do we find water where there appears to be none? The answer to that question could seem like one is trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But to find the answer, we turned not to a magician at the circus, but to a witch, a water witcher that is.

The engine of his old red Ford is still ticking as he hops out of the driver’s seat. On his way out, he grabs two metal coat hangers he keeps stowed on the dash beneath some scattered papers.

Standing as a skyscraper of a man with his long torso and legs topped by a 10 gallon hat, Frank Simpson takes on the task of finding water like a squirrel hunting acorns.

“The first thing I do is determine which way the water veins are running,” he explains, adjusting the rods. To do so, Simpson holds the metal rods loosely in his hands so that they are parallel to the ground. He keeps his elbows tucked snug against his sides for support.

You can use a variety of tools to witch for water. Some people use peach branches or sticks from willow trees. Simpson prefers coat hangers for the simple fact that they are relatively easy to come by.

Immediately, he begins pacing through the thick grass of the wide open pasture, staring intently at his rods and waiting for a reaction. With only a few steps, the rods jerk closed with evident tension. And again, and again, and again. “There it is. That’s amazin’,” he declares, beaming enthusiastically. Crossing each vein, the rods close tight, indicating a water source.

It is an astonishing feat to detect the whereabouts of water with an old coat hanger, but according to Simpson, that isn’t all you can learn from the rods.

“If you want to know more, all you have to do is ask them,” says Simpson with an earnest grin. “I talk to myself and I ask: Is it 10 feet? If those rods don’t react, I ask again,” he explains as he readjusts his cowboy hat. “Eventually, they will cross and that’s how I find the depth and gallons-per-minute.”

This method has been working for Simpson for over 40 years.

On a mission to locate a source of underground water, Simpson plays an integral part in ensuring that people in the Stanly County area can find the water they need for their homes, farms, and businesses.

Since poultry producers dominate much of the rural communities, their income largely depends on the well-being of their animals. Drinking water is an obvious key to survival, but it is equally important for farmers to keep their poultry houses cool during the heat of the southern summers. A constant supply of water running to cool cells and roof sprinklers are used to ventilate and cool the poultry houses.

“So, if a poultry producer is out of water then he’s got a house full of dead chickens,” declares Simpson.

Peering over his thick rimmed glasses, he is eager to share his knowledge and goes on to tell stories of how gratifying it is to be able to help others who are in desperate need of finding water.

Just like the poultry producer’s imminent need for water to keep his chickens alive, many farmers and families look to Simpson to help them locate water. Being a farmer himself, he understands the importance of having a strong supply of water and enjoys using his gift to help others when they are in desperate situations.

Most days, Simpson is busy tending to cattle on his farm. So, he usually only breaks out his coat hangers for those who have had no success finding water. Since he keeps his clientele limited, he only charges a mere $50 for his services. This is a nominal fee in comparison to some of his counterparts who charge over $500 to locate the same source of water.

Regardless of who performs it, the art of water witching still remains a mystery to be solved. “I reckon somebody could explain it, but I can’t. I just know it works,” he affirms as he packs his things back into the old Ford truck.

In an attempt to better understand this mystery, several university and government-funded studies have focused on the technique of water witching and the individuals claiming to have this ability to find water. While the scientific research nearly always returns that water witching is no more effective than chance itself, studies also acknowledge that there is a possibility that individual’s performing water witching subconsciously recognize locations that may produce water and have micro-reactions to these characteristics that cause the tools of the trade to react.

Other scientists have given some possibility to the existence of magnetic fields caused by underground water sources that may cause some type of reaction, either in the rods or in the individuals that perform this task.

Still, no concrete evidence of either exists.

Professional Engineer and the Executive Director of the North Carolina Rural Water Association, Daniel Wilson, added that he had also used similar techniques (he was not all that fond of using the term “witching” for the practice) for locating underground water lines earlier in his career and many professionals in the water industry still believe in the practice of the techniques.

“Today, we have technology such as Ground Penetrating Radars and even infrared imaging to locate underground assets, but there are many L-shaped coat hangers still in use in our industry,” he explained. “We also know and understand a significant amount of hydrogeological information these days that was not as readily available in years past such as the locations and depths of many of the aquifers in the state,” Wilson added.

Regardless of the skepticisms, what it comes down to is results, and Simpson has a substantial track record. Since 1972, he has only found two dry holes, and that’s good enough to hang that big cowboy hat on any day.

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