Do You Believe in Dowsers?

Minor miracle or self-delusion? Lost art or pure malarkey?

Whether dowsers really have a special ability to locate underground water with a forked willow stick (or an iron bar, or welding rods, or half-a-dozen other purported tools of the trade), people have believed in their uncanny abilities for generations.

“I can’t explain it any more than I can explain the sense of direction possessed by migrating birds,” dowser Roy Newman shrugged back in 1961. “I do say I have never yet located a dry well while using the divining rod.”

Newman, a Frazier Park, CA resident at the time, amassed a healthy track record to back up his water-finding bonafides. He successfully picked a spot for a new well in Cuddy Valley in 1926. And over the years, he went on to locate five or six more good water wells in the vicinity — including one that successfully turned up water after more scientific methods to locate a drill site turned up bone dry.

Preferring ‘water diviner’ or ‘dowser’ to the old-fashioned term, ‘water witcher,’ Newman’s tools of the trade included a forked willow branch, a  thin metal wire or, on occasion, a crowbar. But the willow switch was apparently his favorite. Holding a freshly-cut forked willow with down-facing hands, Newman would walk forward over the ground until the willow tip dipped. That was his signal, he said, that water would be found below.

One of six wells in the Frazier Park area discovered by a trio with divining rods. This one produced 350 gallons per minute.

Even walking wasn’t always necessary; sometimes, to cover larger areas, Newman would simply perch on the hood of a car, willow rod in hand. To strengthen the signal, he’d sometimes place one hand over his heart. And once a promising water site was located, Newman would simply hold his willow stick over the spot and count “vibrations” to read the water’s depth.

And Roy Newman wasn’t the only dowser helping find wells near Frazier Park back in the 1960s. M. Pickner of Gorman reportedly chose several successful well sites using an iron bar as his dowsing rod, including finding water at one spot after professional well-locators had failed. Dowser Frank Thorpe also successfully helped choose sites for producing local wells. His preferred dowser’s tool: a wishbone-shaped piece of wire.

Hokum or an as-yet-unexplained gift? It’s hard to say. But it’s fun to watch a dowser in action. We were privileged, once, to watch as a local dowser named Percy Pimley searched for a well site here on the Eastern Slope of the Sierra. According to Percy — then 83 years old — a fresh, forked willow stick was the ticket.  But those with the “gift” need to be extra-careful when using willow, Percy warned. “It can tear the skin right off your palms when it bends if the signal is real strong.”