“It’s totally amazing! I wouldn’t have believed it,” Val Mohr states of his experience of having had a well on his century farm witched. It was 1962, and he and his wife wanted to move onto his father’s farm in the Josephburg area but, having grown up on the farm, Val knew that good water was a problem. His father and grandfather had dug and drilled perhaps as many as 15 wells in search of soft water. The main well was 450 feet deep with lots of water, “but salty as the ocean.” Determined to find good water, Val resorted to the age-old folk craft of water witching. Not that Val himself did the witching. “I could walk all over a pail of water and it wouldn’t move,” he said, referring to the piece of cable used by the dowser he hired from Vegreville. “But this fella, he just had a gift, and it worked and we hit water. We knew where all the wells had been dug on the property and so my dad had him walk over each of the well sites. If they were dry holes, the cable did not move at all. We had a couple of wells that had had water but we had closed them, and he went over that area and the cable moved. Unbelievable.”
Dowsing, divining or witching, depending on which term you want to use, has been around for centuries. Diviners or dowsers, as the practitioners are called, have traditionally used a Y- or L-shaped twig or metal rod that they hold in front of them as they walk back and forth across the land. When the rod, branch or in Mohr’s case, cable, moves, it indicates the spot where a well should be drilled. The cable in Mohr’s dowser’s hand “really spun” at one point, but since they were standing in the middle of the road, they had to find another location. As luck would have it, the dowser found good water very close to the family home. That well supplied them with soft water for almost 20 years. Interestingly, the water was naturally fluorinated and no one in the Mohr household ever had any dental problems.
Val Mohr is the great grandson of Frederick Mohr (1837-1902) who, along with a number of other Germans, immigrated to what is now Alberta in 1888. The Germans settled first at Dunmore southeast of Medicine Hat, but two successive years of drought drove them north to the Edmonton area where Frederick Mohr took a homestead on NW28-54-21 W4 in 1891. After the land was surveyed, Mohr and three other farmers found to their dismay that their farmyards were not located on a road allowance, but were one-half mile from a road in either direction. With wells dug, corrals erected and a house built, Frederick Mohr elected not to move, so to this day Frederick Mohr’s great, great, great grandson, Donovan, has to make the half mile drive up their private road to the house.
Frederick Mohr operated a mixed enterprise with horses, pigs, cattle and chickens. He and his son Philip (1862-1928) and later his son Albert (1910-1997) grew barley, oats and wheat as well. Taking off the harvest was a big job. As both Philip and his son Albert owned the only threshing machine in the area, they threshed all the neighbour’s crops. One autumn two eastern harvesters showed up looking for work. Philip agreed to hire them. Since the family was about to sit down to dinner, Philip Mohr invited his new employees to join them. After dinner Philip changed his mind about the two men who apparently had only picked at their food. Protesting did the men no good. “In this country you have to be able to work and if you can’t eat, you can’t work. I need someone who can work and I don’t care how much they eat,” declared Philip as he showed the two disappointed and probably stunned men the door.
By the 1960s a new crop was being introduced to Alberta farmers. It was Val who allowed himself to be persuaded by the District Agriculturalist to experiment with rapeseed. “It was a total disaster. The District Agriculturalist could not give me any advice on growing it. There were no sprays for it. We didn’t know how to seed it. We planted about 10 acres. Weeds! Unbelievable! I don’t even think we got a crop off it. We even got a warning from the county to clean it up!” Today, of course, canola, a derivative of rapeseed, is widely grown throughout central and northern Alberta.
Val Mohr can also boast of being the first farmer in Alberta to use hydrous ammonia on his fields. It was being used extensively in the United States by the 1960s but not here. Val, who was working at Sherritt Gordon’s Fort Saskatchewan refinery, decided to give it a try. He borrowed Sherritt’s applicator and filled a 500-gallon tank that was on top. When he applied the hydrous ammonia to his fields, he made careful note of the different rates he used. He even experimented with applying it after the crops were up about four or five inches. The end results were “very positive. I feel good about that.” For its part, Sherritt Gordon took note and soon began marketing the chemical to Canadian farmers.