More than 125 years ago there lived a little boy who was so special that someone should have written a book about him but a rare newspaper account of the day simply refers to him as “the ten-year-old son of Farmer Beiler.” What happened to Farmer Beiler’s kid is stll significnt and is also a great story.
July, 1884 – Resaca, Pennsylvania
In this rural area lived a scattered settlement of German farmers, including the Beiler clan whose property was near fields which were no longer cultivated – “brushlots” which had become overgrown because a previous owner abandoned his farm after his family had died there. What had once been a carefully maintained homestead was now the remains of decaying buildings and in the dooryard of the farmhouse was a forgotten old well. Because the abandoned fields were used by adjoining farmers to graze their cattle, the derelict shaft had been covered with boards by owners of the animals to ensure their safety. As time passed, the boards rotted and became hidden beneath layers of fallen leaves. After a while, no one remembered that there was a well there.
One day, Farmer Beiler’s son set out to pick blackberries. As was the case with most children back then, he was independent and frequently roamed about in the woods until late in the afternoon. He had never been late for supper before, however, and when 6:00 P.M. had come and passed without his return home, his parents began to worry. Farmer Beiler started off toward the neighboring deserted farm, hoping to meet his son along the way. With the approach of darkness, he became greatly alarmed and returned home for a lantern, then once more to the brush lots, calling his son’s name without success. Returning home again to enlist the help of neighbors in a more extensive search, he took a short cut through the yard of the deserted farmhouse. As he hurried through, someone called to him faintly and he stopped and called his son’s name again. To this, his son replied faintly: “Here!” from off to the right
By the light of his lantern, Farmer Beiler could see his son lying on the ground a few feet away. To his horror, the anxious father saw that the boy was lying almost on the edge of the old forgotten well, the covering of which had broken, revealing an opening on one side of the shaft about two feet wide. His son was exhausted and shivering as the father bundled him up in his coat and rushed him home. After resting and being cared for, the little boy was able to tell his amazing story.
The Little Boy Who Wouldn’t Die
At first his day had been an adventure crammed with childish delights as he filled his basket with berries, then discovered a ground hog’s hole on the hillside and tried to dig the occupant out. Absorbed in all this, he only then noticed it was twilight and hurried homeward. At about 6 p.m., he made the mistake of taking a short cut through the abandoned farmyard, where the ground gave way beneath him and in the next instant he found himself in the dark, floundering in water. After regaining his footing and collecting his senses, he realized he was standing in icy cold water up to his waist. Except for a streak of dim light he could see above him, all was dark but by feeling around with his hands he found a wall circling around him and then realized that he was at the bottom of a well which he hadn’t even known was there.
Fighting back panic, he tried to remain calm as he looked for a way out of his terrible situation. The brave kid realized the chances weren’t good that anyone would discover him there that night and he probably wouldn’t last long in the cold dark place. Fortunately, the well was not a pipe but rather was lined with rough and jagged stones with chinks and crevices between them. He knew he would have to save himself by climbing up the wall using the stones and cracks as handholds and footholds. This was difficult, as the well was too wide for him to brace a foot against each side and it was very dark indeed but he managed to climb nearly all the way up by clinging precariously to one wall and using whatever advantage he could to hang on.
After several attempts he finally succeeded in drawing himself up out of the water. The last remaining light showed that the surface was not many feet above him and as he struggled upwards, he prayed for strength to reach it. The ascent was slow and painful and his fingers were torn by the sharp stones causing his fingernails to bleed as he climbed upwards. Daylight was gone by the time he achieved reaching distance of the opening through which he had fallen but at this point he was revisited by disaster.
Although he felt that he was almost free, he extended his hand upward to find no more crevices or handholds but only a large smooth stone. At either side of it was a ”chink” but to use them he had to edge along the face of the wall to position himself a certain way. Slowly and cautiously he inched sideways around the circle and was reaching up to feel if his way was clear when he slipped and fell back into the chilly water at the bottom.
At this point he broke down, crying and shouting for help to no avail, but knowing that his parents would be upset inspired him to begin climbing the wall AGAIN. Three hours later, almost fainting from exhaustion, he finally grasped the upper edge of the wall and managed to escape. With his last precious ounce of energy, he dragged himself a few feet and almost fainted. The sound of his father’s voice had revived him. The boy’s fingers were worn to the bone in places and his legs badly lacerated. He also became ill with brain fever afterwards but survived. We can only hope he enjoyed a long life, with a great story to tell his grandchildren.
Why should this story about a great kid concern us today?
Farmer Beiler’s son was the victim of an accident which happened at an abandoned farmstead and all across America there are thousands more places that used to be abandoned farms … many little family farms that have “gone under” or been bought out. Each of those farms had their own water well in the front or back yard. In Illinois, statistics show that there were only 76,000 farms in Illinois in 2002 compared to 203,000 farms in 1950. Assuming each of those farms in 1950 had a house and well indicates that there are more than 125,000 wells no longer in use in Illinois alone today.
In many cases, the small farmer who had to sell out (or worse yet, be foreclosed upon) did not have the time, money, or inclination to properly fill or secure his well; if anything, he simply threw some boards over it before he and his family left. In some cases, wells which might have been covered with pumps were rendered dangerous later when farm sites were bulldozed under, leaving well shafts which weren’t covered at all and in time became forgotten and almost invisible to the eye. Sometimes, old shafts even exist in areas which have been turned into subdivisions. State after state across this country is a veritable minefield of forgotten open wells, disasters just waiting to happen. For this reason, it would behoove us all to examine every square inch of property to check for odd openings in the ground or other treacherous dangers.
Farmer Beiler’s son was not only courageous but lucky as well but there have been a lot of people who have simply disappeared, some of them never found again, perhaps trapped in open wells that nobody even knows are there to this very day.
A Boy’s Narrow Escape, The New York Times, July 22nd,1884.