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A Divine Gift: The Last Water Witch

Barbara Dutton, the 'Water Witch' holds up a freshly cut willow. According to Dutton, the dying branch seeks out water.
In 1949, a seventeen-year-old witch migrated to Colorado. She had fled – no, not Salem, Massachusetts – Amarillo, Texas, in search of a new life. The Water Witch, a moniker that she long ago earned and that she today appears proud to claim, followed her husband, Joe, to La Junta to “farm the land.”

Barbara Dutton, The Water Witch, believes that God bestowed her with a gift: the ability to locate underground water. At a young age, Barbara would follow her father – she was “daddy’s little chum” – around the state of Texas, watching as he dowsed, divined, doodlebugged or witched for water. Barbara’s daddy, the only other family member given this gift, would spend hours surveying arid lands, never accepting more than a ride home as payment.

Then one day Dutton’s daddy put the Y-shaped stick in her hands. Ten-year-old Barbara tried to refuse stick. She still does not know why she was so scared. Dutton explains her fear: “I was just a kid” and “women did not do things like that; it was not lady-like in those days.” She made clear that women were supposed to knit and to bake pies, which she said she certainly does. Dutton did feel something that day; she felt the water tugging at that witching stick.

Upon meeting Dutton, I neither shied away from her stature, about 5’6” tall and roughly 100 pounds, nor from her inviting demeanor. The Water Witch’s “costume” did not frighten me: a jean jacket embellished with an embroidered, white lace design – highlighting her delicate shoulders – and gold and silver decorative buttons that sparkled in the sunlight. Her lightweight sweater appeared witchlike: pink with thin black stripes, but that is as close a resemblance to a witch as I could possibly discern.

In 1950 or ’51, some locals just outside of La Junta desperately needed farming water. Barbara volunteered her divining abilities and found her first well. Over the years, Barbara has helped establish 20-25 wells, some still in use today. She even located her own well, which continues to supply water for approximately 100 of her neighbor’s cows and for her and her neighbor’s well-manicured lawns.

Dutton, seated at the far end of her cream-colored couch, explained that a peach or a willow limb works best for finding water. She could not determine the reasons, but Dutton said that the limb needs to be freshly cut from the tree, which caused me to wonder if the dying limb simply hunts for a source of renewed life.

Barbara and her husband Joe, have been entrenched in water issues all their lives.

Dutton demonstrated her method of witching: hold the Y-shaped limb with palms facing upward, a branch in each hand, and then walk the area where a well is desired. If there is water, the limb will forcefully dip toward the earth, and onlookers will usually react “like children at a balloon party.” Dutton said that the witch will certainly know where the largest pool of water rests because the force will be too powerful to resist.

The next step is to determine how deep the water lies and how much water is pooled underground. Dutton demonstrated how she normally sits with baling wire in her right hand. She rested her right arm across her left leg, extending the baling wire out some distance over the located water. In the presence of water, the wire will aggressively bounce up and down, disclosing how many feet the water lies below the surface. Then the baling wire will bounce slightly, indicating the amount of water, in feet, waiting to be unearthed.

Joe Dutton, from his rocking chair, gruffly mentioned that witching has been around “since the beginning of time,” Barbara added that the use of a divining rod, in fact, shows up in the Bible. According to The American Society of Dowsers, the evidence of witching or divining is “thought to date back at least 8,000 years.” There are wall murals that have been discovered in the “Tassili Caves of North Africa [depicting] tribesmen surrounding a man with a forked stick, possibly dowsing for water” and anthropologists have discovered artwork from both ancient China and ancient Egypt portraying the use of a forked tool.

As well, Dowsing.com states that “there is one direct reference to dowsing in the Bible, and it is condemned by God.” This reference is found in Hosea 4:12, “My people consult their wooden idol, and their diviner’s wand informs them; for a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, and they have played the harlot, departing from their God”: hence the term “water witching.” Some scholars, nevertheless, believe that Moses and Aaron were diviners because they both used a “rod” to locate water.

The Duttons, who spent years entrenched in water (political discussions and decision-making), explained that the cost of building new wells has skyrocketed because Kansas and other states own portions of Colorado’s water supply: “Whatever amount of water you take out of the ground,” Barbara said, “you have to replace that portion with lots money.” At one point during our chat, The Water Witch became seemingly enraged after I mentioned the speculators who are buying water rights, a serious concern that affects everyone in La Junta.

By the end of our conversation, I felt bewitched. Barbara and Joe Dutton had mesmerized me with fascinating information. After having been asked about other witches in the area, Barbara confessed that there are “some people who feel the need to hide their abilities because they feel they have the voodoo,” but she knows of no one having witched before her and her husband’s arrival in Colorado, and she knows of no one witching today. “It’s a dying art,” The Water Witch acknowledged, “They got machines that find water now.”

Barbara Dutton displays how she uses bailing wire to determine the distance and size of the underground water supply.

As I pondered Barbara’s concluding words, a hummingbird – one that Barbara and Joe had yet to see before that day – drank the sweet water from the red feeder that dangled just outside the Dutton’s living-room window.

By James Seals

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