Stella Long, Water Dowser
Dowsing is a term that means using a divining rod to find underground water. Dowsers look for water using a forked stick, usually a willow branch.
Supposedly, only a few people can locate water by dowsing, and most people have never witnessed it being done. It remains mysterious, and is often dismissed as unscientific; a sleight-of-hand; or a falsehood.
There have been a number of North Dakotans known for finding water by dowsing, including Stella Long, a woman from Epping, near Williston. Stella could apparently find underground water veins in semiarid prairies where others had failed.
Stella used a “Y-shaped, 2-foot-long willow branch,” tightly holding onto the forked branches and walking until the tip of the branch turned downward, indicating water down below.
Born in 1899, Stella was about age 35 when she discovered her talent. She and her husband George were distraught when a flash flood destroyed the well on their farm south of Epping. The couple hauled water for 4 years, and then a relative urged them to try dowsing.
As Stella later said: “I tried, and found I could do it.” She claimed she could also determine how far down the water was.
For the next 45 years, Stella dowsed for people from “Hinsdale, Montana, to Grand Forks,” charging a fee of $50. As she related: “Nobody’s ever told me that I’ve failed” to find water for them.
One time a neighbor had “dug four dry wells,” and finally asked Stella to dowse. Stella said: “I found water, and he said he could have saved $500 if he’d asked me first.”
Stella Long did not know why or how dowsing worked, but said: “People have gifts. I didn’t have good looks. I couldn’t sing or dance, but God gave me this gift.” She lived a long life, dying at age 94, in 1993.
There have been plenty of doubters about dowsers. On this date, in 1918, the Grand Forks Herald published a story about a U.S. Geological Survey pamphlet entitled “The Divining Rod,” which discredited the ability of dowsers to “trace underground streams,” or the “depth at which water . . . occurs.”
Nonetheless, as Stella said: “I’ve been accused of bending the willow down, but I don’t. People just don’t understand.”
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.
“Divining Rod,” Grand Forks Herald, October 18, 1918, p. 7.
Gordon Hanson, “[Stella Long] Still Succeeds,” Bismarck Tribune, March 2, 1981, p. 28.
“Stella Long,” obituary, Bismarck Tribune, August 17, 1993, p. 7.
“Witching for Water Rod,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, March 22, 1917, p. 5.
“Divining Rod Gets Knocked,” Grand Forks Herald, December 22, 1912, p. 4.