Old homes and farms contain secrets – some good, some bad

This old house was built before Stillwater had a municipal well.

We’ve lived in one of Stillwater’s historic homes for almost two years now and I’m still not entirely certain when the house was built. According to the County Assessor’s Office, it was built in 1870, but when I recently came across an ink drawing depicting the city and all its buildings in 1880, I noticed that our house was not there. The house holds other mysteries as well. I’ve heard that it was originally the carriage house for one of the larger houses on our block, yet I have no proof of whether or not this is true. We have noticed that there are significant differences between the front and back halves of the house, though, which suggest that the original building was once much smaller but added on to over the years. Shortly before moving in, I found on the internet a web page filled with information about one of the home’s original owners, but the page has since vanished into thin air, leaving me without further clues. One of these days I will finally make it over to the Washington County Historical Society to see what I can learn.Part of the fun of owning an old home or farm is uncovering the secrets of its former lives. Whether you find old glass bottles buried in the yard or a piece of remnant prairie in the back forty that has never been plowed, each new discovery adds detail to the story. Unfortunately, however, old homes can also reveal secrets that threaten our health, such as lead paint, asbestos or abandoned wells.

Whether you live in the country or in town, you could have one or more wells on your property that are no longer in use and have never been sealed. If your house was built before city water was available, there was likely a well on your property. The same is true for old farmlands; even if your house is new, there are likely old wells on your property that once served former houses and barns. A well may be “lost” or abandoned when property changes hands, or when agricultural land is converted to industrial or residential properties. Old, unused wells are easily forgotten.

Abandoned wells pose a major threat to the safety of our groundwater drinking resources unless they are permanently sealed. As a well ages, the casing may rust, joints may leak, the pump may become stuck in the well, or the well may fill with debris. Unsealed wells provide a direct route for contaminants to reach groundwater aquifers, polluting nearby wells that are still in use or even municipal water supplies.

To help protect groundwater drinking resources, Washington County has a well-sealing program that can cover 50-100% of the cost for property owners to seal abandoned wells on their property. Wells are sealed by clearing out debris and filling the well in with grout, a process that must be done by a licensed well contractor. If you live in a drinking water supply management area or an area of know groundwater contamination, the county will cover the full cost of sealing your well (see map). Near Stillwater, there are drinking water supply management areas covering large portions of Stillwater, Oak Park Heights, Bayport, Lakeland and Lake St. Croix Beach. Additionally, an area of known groundwater contamination covers much of Lake Elmo, Baytown, Bayport, northern West Lakeland Twp. and Lakeland.  Outside of drinking water management areas and areas of know groundwater contamination, the county will pay half of the cost for sealing a well for families making less than $90,000 per year.

Finding abandoned wells in an old home or farm can take a little detective work. Unused or sealed wells may be listed in the paperwork from when you bought your home, but often the information is lost over the years. Look for any physical evidence of a well on your property: a well casing, pipe, or water pump; water pipes which may indicate the presence of a well; a small room, often in the basement, that may have housed a well; a small building located away from the house; a windmill or water pump; or a depression in the yard. You can often see the casing of an unused well sticking up out of the ground. Look for a metal pipe 1-6 inches in diameter. Wells that were dug rather than drilled may appear as a ring – made of concrete, tile, bricks, or rocks – in the ground. The ring could be anywhere from 12-36 inches in diameter. Inside your home, a pipe sticking up out of the floor, possibly stuffed with rags, could be an old well casing. Wells were often housed in a basement offset, a small room attached to the basement, often located under exterior concrete steps. A glass block fitted into a step or a concrete patch could be another clue.

To learn more about sealing abandoned wells, visit www.co.washington.mn.us/index.aspx?NID=640 or www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/wells/sealing/abandwel.html.

To qualify for financial assistance, it is important that you contact the county’s Department of Public Health and Environment first to complete an application and instructions on how to proceed: 651-430-6655 or PHE@co.washington.mn.us.