The Tank House

Once, everybody had one. No one remembers when ours was built though we think both the house and the tank house were built sometime around the end of the 19th century by Thomas Steele. It was the old Sullivan Ranch and when we lived there,  was the property of Joaquin Machado, whose brother “Jinks” ranched up in the Alisos Canyon off the road to Huasna.


Mike, Jerry and little Cayce Shannon, all barefoot with our aunt Patsy in 1951. Tank house in the background. Route 1 box 593, Branch Mill Road.

A clue to the age of the building is the bargeboard visible in the upper left of the photo above. If you know anything about architectural history you will recognize the profile as typical of the bungalow and craftsman style homes built in the decades between 1890 and the late twenties. A reaction against the highly ornamented style of the Victorian era, these houses were simple in plan, easy to build and much more economical. There are still many examples dotting the valley. Our neighbors, Gladys, yes, that Gladys, the former Miss Walker who taught in our elementary schools and who married Lester Sullivan, lived in a house very similar to ours. The Sullivan’s tank house still stands right behind the home on Huasna road.

In the very early days of our valley, you simply hand dug a well. The water table in the early days was only a few feet down and just a bucket was needed to fetch water into the house. As time went on and farms put up windmills and used wind power to pump water up and into the redwood tank mounted on the top of the tank house. The old tank houses were built because a tank of water 20 feet in the air provided enough weight to pressurize water lines in a dwelling. A 5,000 gallon wooden tank weighed twenty tons when filled. Kids didn’t have to fetch water anymore. Very modern. Today they would be considered the ultimate in environmental sensitivity.

My parents moved to our farm in 1946. The old farm house had electricity, though it was the old Knob and Tube kind, the oldest form of house wiring in which two wires, one neutral and one positive ran through porcelain tubes and around small round knobs to perhaps one light or one outlet per room. The wire is fondly referred to as Rag Wire, the insulation was simply cotton-linen thread. Not really dangerous unless rats chewed the insulation. Not so safe for rats who chewed and touched both wires at the same time though. By that time the electrical system was at least a half century old as was the plumbing. Installed at the same time as the tank house was built, it was galvanized pipe and had fifty years of iron scale lining the inside. Hard water my mom called it and it was the bane of every washerwoman in the valley. There are pictures of our house when it was painted white where you can clearly see the band of yellowed paint where the lawn sprinkler splattered it.

When I was in high school part of the boys uniform always included a crisp white tee  worn under your shirt. Unfortunately, those of us farm boys who strived for sartorial elegance could only be successful until the first washing. Yellow followed  washing just as inevitably as the moon follows the sun.

When my parents moved in, the tank house was still in use though the windmill was gone, replaced by a simple electric pump that forced water up the pipe into the redwood tank. Water towers with large tanks suspended on open platforms, many large enough to serve entire towns, can be found all over America’s heartland. But the enclosed tankhouses built entirely out of redwood, from frame, siding and roof to the water tank itself, are unique to California. Before municipal water systems they were common in towns like Arroyo Grande where homes sat on large farming plots. Out in the country they were in use much longer. After the coming of rural electrification, pumps replaced windmills. The tank houses stayed though.  Tank houses had to be well-engineered and sturdily built to support a windmill and 5,000-gallon tank holding tons of water 20 feet above the ground. That is why so many of them were built with that distinctive shape — a wide base with sloping walls tapering upward to a square enclosed tank deck  with a slight overhang at the top. A flat or pitched roof was built over the tank to keep out debris.  The spaces between the rafters were screened to allow the breeze to cool the water.

Most folks in those days had little to differentiate the style in which they lived. My parents both grew up in plain homes as did almost everybody else in Arroyo Grande. Insulation was unknown, so houses were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Nearly everybody had a septic tank and leach line and outside town, water came from shallow house wells or was pumped directly from the creek. Things were taken for granted then that would be considered dangerous or unsanitary today. Kids went barefoot in the summer, wore the same clothes for days at a time and bathed Saturday night for church on Sunday. My mother did her best but when you live down a dirt road, surrounded by farm fields it was a losing battle. She lived with it without much complaint. She did her best.

Occasionally though, she kicked over the traces. Some things could simply not be borne; she would stand up to my dad and lay down the law. In the fifties most of my friends parents had a relationship that still abided by the old chauvinistic norms that had the father as the wage earner and the mother as the homemaker. Farmers were staunchly conservative. It was very difficult as a child to win an argument with him. He was smart, had a head for math and statistics and his life’s experience put him way ahead of the curve intellectually. He kept a copy of the World Almanac next to our kitchen table and read it for fun. If you wanted to make any headway in a discussion with him, you’d better check that book ahead of time. He was also a bit of a Circulist. Also known as “Begging the question,” it’s an argument’s whose premise assumes the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. In other words, you assume without proof, the stand/position, or a significant part of the stand,  is in the question. He also loved to say “Thats all we’re going to say about that,” which ended any spirited discussion. He genuinely liked women but didn’t always give them high marks for intelligence. He once illustrated this by telling me that my grandmother, his mother wouldn’t vote for Thomas Dewey because he had a mustache. In a world of Republicans, Dewey was the great hope to unseat FDR and for a ranchers wife not to vote republican for what he considered a silly reason, “Just proves my point,” he said.

Once in a while, though, things happened in our house that she wouldn’t tolerate. Like most farms and ranches in the time after the war, we still had a barn. It was an old hay barn, with mangers along the sides and a loft above. Dirt farmers had little use for them, they were from another time before the “Johnny Popper” replaced the horse. Most sat empty.  They were great places for kids to play and we did that. Ours, the one next door where Oliver Talley farmed, Lester Sullivan’s, the old barn on the Hiyashi’s farm across Huasna Road, down at Perry’s and over across the creek at Rudolph Gulartes. Other than kids and barn owls, they were unoccupied. Children by day, owls by night.

As the old barns and silos were abandoned and torn down, the owls had to look for new homes under the eves of the tractor sheds, the old corn cribs and finally under the roof edge of our tank house. In the days when boys with rifles shot anything that moved, we were ordered to leave the owls alone because they dined on rats and mice which would get into the grain and feed sack storage. There were strict rules about shooting too. If you shot a hole in the roof of one of our buildings you were not going to be happy, believe me. You’d think that all these boy killers would be hard on wildlife but the fields were rife with Killdeer, Magpies, flocks of Blackbirds and the brown Thrasher. The Killdeer would follow the tractors through the fields and search the new furrows for worms and grubs to eat all the while calling out to each other their distinctive cry, “Kill-Dee, Kill-Dee. The Thrasher’s many calls from the brush constituted the greatest variety of any north American bird. On my grandparents ranch the beautiful Magpie was to be seen picking nuts and seed out of the cow manure. In fact, as the well known rhyme “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told.” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. They talk a lot among themselves too, constantly . The old slang word “Mag”, short for Margaret, means some one that talks too much.  You can put the rest together yourself.

Sadly, most are gone from the fields now, primarily victims of habitat loss, incidental poisoning from the use of Pesticides and Herbicides and the encroachment of development.

At our house though, the barn owl, or as my mom called it, screech owl, doesn’t hoot. Their cry is a combination of fingernails scratching an old fashioned slate blackboard, a baby’s cry and the sound of a kid just learning to whistle through his teeth. They annoyed my mother exceedingly. Really annoyed her when she figured out what was coming out of the kitchen faucets. At first there were little bits of what looked like minerals, tiny pieces of rock that came up the pipe from the wellhead and into the tank. She could hold up a glass of water to the window and see particles floating in it. To a girl raised in the oil patch, that was no great shakes, after all she was old enough to have lived in ranch houses when she was young where the water came into the house in a bucket you had to carry. She could tolerate at lot of things a farmers wife had to and not be particularly concerned.  But when the first little feather came out the spout, the scales were tipped. Thats when she understood that it wasn’t mineral but bone fragments. It was a little puzzling at first, but she told my dad to find a ladder and climb to the tank house platform. This in itself was a challenge because my dad wasn’t someone who enjoyed any place where his feet weren’t touching the ground. So, being the boss, he sent his employee, Lester Haas instead. Lester, or “Lek” as he was known, poked around up there for a bit and then tossed 3 dead screech owl chicks down. What had happened was that the chicks, just fledglings, and had fallen from the nest into the water and drowned. Hence the little feathers. Lek thought it was pretty funny, being an Okie and all. Hard life was meant to be laughed at where he came from. My mom didn’t laugh though and she lit right into dad. He’d better take care of that tank “Right now.”

And he did too. Keith Rapp did the electrical, Water well Supply put in the pressure tank and pop hooked ‘er up. That old tank came down forever and another nail was put in the coffin of the “old days.” That water made you boys strong and healthy though,” he always said and maybe he was right.


2 thoughts on “The Tank House

  1. Gwyn McDonnell says:

    Hi Michael, We had a pressure pot installed 2 years ago, here in New Zealand. Before that a small pump pushed the water up to the secondary tank located in the space between our roof and the ceiling. I well remember feathers coming out of the tap! We still collect our water from rain off the roof in an above ground tank but with the pressure pot came a more robust filtration system so the floaters are no more.
    I love your stories.


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