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Hazards of Old Rain Barrels in Town and Country


Parents must be constantly vigilant to protect their children as the little ones grow up. This is as true today as it was in the deep past. One hazard from yesteryears involved rain barrels.

People commonly used big wooden barrels to catch and store rainwater that cascaded down from rooftops through rain-gutters and drainpipes. Rainwater was naturally soft water, and was the best for washing clothes, because it made for good soap bubbles. Everybody had a cistern or rain barrel to collect the water.

It might seem that a big wooden-staved barrel full of water would be nothing to worry about, but deathly danger lurked beneath the water within. Children were tempted to look at their own reflections in the water or to splash and play in the barrel.

On this date in 1913, a newspaper article in the Grand Forks Herald revealed the perils of water barrels. It was a June day in the town of Hankinson and Mrs. [Mary] Mourer was visiting at the Silas Nims home, when she looked out the window and saw the little feet of a child sticking up above the top of a rain barrel at the house next door. She alerted her host, Miss Nina Nims, who dashed from the house, ran across a vacant lot, and pulled the child from the water, saving the life of three-year-old Margaret Thunell. It was a close call of a type repeated countless times in North Dakota’s history.

In 1916, in Grand Forks, 5-year-old Sylvester Merth rescued his 3-year-old brother, Maurice, by pulling him out of a rain-barrel. Maurice had slipped, headfirst, while climbing on a board leading to the barrel.

Near Crosby, in 1912, the 3-year-old son of Austin Ustenson had a narrow escape, saved by his mother who pulled him by the heels from their water barrel.

Obviously, there were also stories without a happy ending, but on this date we remember three children who got a chance to live full lives after close calls with a hazard of the past.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Tiny Feet Warning That Save Life of Child in Rain Barrel,” Grand Forks Herald, June 24, 1913, p. 7.

“Five-Year-Old Boy Rescues His Little Brother From Death,” Grand Forks Herald, June 26, 1916, p. 7.

“Flickertail Facts; Crosby,” Ward County Independent, October 17, 1912, p. 14.

“Drowned In Rain Barrel,” Ward County Independent, October 21, 1920, p. 21.

“Drowned In A Barrel,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 11, 1902, p. 6.

“Fell Into Rain Barrel Drowned,” Wahpeton Times, August 5, 1915, p. 1.

“Rain Barrel And Sink,” Williston Graphic, November 8, 1906, p. 7.

“Announcement Extraordinary: Perfect Soft Water for Your Laundry Work,” Grand Forks Herald, October 12, 1919, p. 13.