Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ode to the Small Town Water Tower

“If you have ever hauled a can of paint to the top of a water tower to defend your sister’s honor, you might be a redneck.”
— Jeff Foxworthy

It is often the first — or perhaps the second thing one sees after grain elevators — when cresting a hill on Highway 83 as one arrives in small town. I’m speaking of course, of the water tower.
Last month, on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook I began posting a series of photos, called “The Water Towers of Highway 83.” I have done a few photo series over the years on the page derived from the thousands of pictures I’ve taken along the road — “Highway 83 at Night;” “A Troll’s Eye View of Highway 83” (pictures taken from under bridges), and “Businesses Named after Highway 83,” but I have never had the enthusiastic reaction from the members as I did with the water towers. I had lots of “Likes” and comments on the pictures, and many posted photos of their own favorites.
I have to confess that while I took pictures of dozens of them on my Route 83 travels, I hadn’t given them too much thought.
And so poking around the web to do some further research, I have learned a thing or two. I wondered if there was some book about the topic written for people such as myself. So far, I have come up empty. A search on and the Library of Congress catalog showed only works written for the civil engineering crowd.
I did find a wonderful sight simply named It doesn’t say who created it, but he or she sure is passionate about the subject. The trivia section does a good job of explaining their purpose. Basically, they are supposed to hold enough water to last a day during an emergency. And so in larger towns like Oberlin (pictured above), they are big and fat. Small towns like Agar, S.D., (pop. 76) get by with lower capacity tanks.

They get drained in the morning when everyone is taking a shower and flushing toilets. They fill back up at night when all are asleep. They rely on gravity to do their job, which is why they are elevated. (That doesn’t explain this height-challenged one in Mound City, S.D. pictured below.)
And so they, of course, serve a very practical purpose. But I don’t think that is why the photo series was so popular. I suspect they have a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in small towns as a perpetual presence in their lives.
The one I grew up with was in Stapleton, Neb., along Highway 83, where I would go to visit my grandparents in the summers. It is the classic, conical shape water tower with little hat on top, a bit like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. I do remember occasionally seeing graffiti spray-painted on there in the 1970s, as described by the comedian Jeff Foxworthy in the above quote.
A water tower is a landmark like no other, especially in the flatlands found along Highway 83. It is only rivaled by the grain elevators. But not every town has grain elevators while almost every one has a water tower. Almost all have the town’s name displayed for the travelers who may not know here they are. Some like Aspermont, Texas, paint the high school mascot as a point of town pride (The Hornets).
Two of my Highway 83 favorites feature celebrities: Popeye is on view at Crystal City, Texas, which is known for its spinach. San Benito, Texas, pays tribute to its native son, the late singer Freddy Fender.
But I think my favorite is one of the newest built along the road. It is found near the border of Rosebud Reservation and Nebraska in the new Sicangu Village tribal housing development.
“Water is Life,” it reads.
For the communities along Highway 83 on the Great Plains, South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, truer words were never spoken.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at



Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know whether it counts as a Hwy 83 town, but Nicodemus, KS, has a sort of fake tower: they've erected a small one, but I don't think it holds water. Kinda small.... Looks a little forlorn.