If you didn’t grow up on a farm you may never have even heard of a canvas dam. They are a marvel. They are simple, portable, durable, functional, and cheap. I’m going to let someone eminently more qualified than myself describe canvas dams and their use.
How much more qualified? Well, in the publication Irrigation in the United States which was published in 1902, its author, Frederick Haynes Newell, was described as “Hydraulic Engineer and Chief of the Division of Hydrography of the United States Geological Survey; Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Expert on Irrigation for the Eleventh and Twelfth United States Censuses; Secretary of the American Forestry Association, etc.”
Mr. Newell said that a canvas dam “consists of a piece of stout cloth, one edge of which is tacked to a stick long enough to extend across the lateral ditch or furrow. The canvas, falling into the furrow, fits the sides and bottoms, and is held in place by a clod of dirt thrown upon it. Water meeting the obstruction still further forces the canvas down, making a fairly tight dam, against which it accumulates and overflows into the field.”
I remember often seeing my father don his rubber waders and head out to a field with a small dam, canvas loosely wrapped around the pole, propped on one shoulder, a shovel across the other. If the ditch was big, so was the dam, so he’d usually be dragging those.
Gravity irrigation is not easy work, but I think it was his favorite work that did not involve straddling a horse. Encouraging water to flow down furrows or across pasture land gave him time to think and enjoy the weather.
My great aunt, Agnes Just Reid, knew about such men and honored them in poetry more than once.
The Man With the Shovel
After the work of construction
After the dam is made,
After the dream is realized
That has been long delayed:
Then comes the man with the shovel,
The man who is king in the west,
He takes up the ceaseless burden
And lets the dam builder rest.
He may not have vision of learning,
He may not have time to dream,
But he knows a field of sagebrush
And an irrigation stream.
Take away men of theories
With their plans so futile and dim,
But leave us the man with the shovel,
We cannot live without him!
She did not mention canvas dams, as if shovels would do the trick alone. She also did not mention the obligatory swearing when no matter how much sod a man would put on the canvas to hold it in place the dam would wash out, canvas flapping downstream like a wagging tongue.
Canvas dams were ubiquitous for about a hundred years on Idaho farms. No doubt there are a few of them in use today. Yet, do a Google images search for Canvas Dam and only one decent picture comes up, that one from Nevada in the 1980s and in the Smithsonian collection.
That doesn’t make the canvas dam picture in your old family album valuable, but it does make it rare. Share it if you have one.