Water Tank Heater Woes

Learning how to light the water tank heater leaves a lasting impression on one farm youth.

Young boys illustration

Before automatic waterers, farm kids had to haul buckets of water — said kids might argue it impeded their growth.

Photo by Dennis Auth

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My wife and I raise a few Jersey steers on our farm. The little brown bovines mow the grass in our cattle yard and put beef in our freezer. During the wintertime, our steers munch hay from a hay ring, which has zero moving parts. They nosh grain from a self-feeder, which also has no moving parts. I like to keep things simple. I’m just a simple-minded guy.

The most complex part of our beef operation is the automatic waterer. This gizmo contains highly pressurized water, yet never explodes. The waterer somehow knows when it’s cold outside and warms itself with an electric heater. I think it knows how to think. The cattle waterer may be complicated, but I’m extremely glad we have it.

When I was growing up on our family’s dairy farm, we had one source of water for all the animals. This source began with a 2-inch galvanized pipe that had been sunk down to the water table. Bolted atop this pipe was an old and creaky pump jack. (My wife might argue “old and creaky” also describes me.)

A woefully underpowered electric motor drove the pump jack via an unshielded V-belt. It was as if a sewing machine motor were cranking a Mack truck.

A steel pipe that hung from the pump jack’s spout diverted the pulsing stream of water into a round wooden tank that was about the size of a hot tub. Our two dozen milk cows had access to the water tank and drank from it freely. I suppose a person could have taken a soak in our water tank, but that would mean being exposed to high levels of cow slobber.

 Most of the animals on our farm were watered with 5-gallon buckets carried by hand. (Farm kids were shorter back then due to the skeletal compression that resulted from carrying innumerable 5-gallon buckets of water.) An aerial view of our farmstead would have revealed a network of worn footpaths that ran between the hog house, chicken coop, calf barns, and the water tank, resembling game trails surrounding a watering hole in a scorched desert.

The water tank was a playground for my siblings and me during the summer months. We made boats with tree bark and leaves, and fought epic naval battles. Water bugs patrolled the submarine forest of algae that sprouted from the tank’s bottom. We played and splashed in the greenish water, totally ignoring the cow drool contamination.

But on frigid Dakota winter mornings, when the cold was so deep that the sun seemed as anemic as a 10-watt bulb, providing water for man and beast became a life-or-death challenge.

When the mercury dropped below zero, the oil in the pump jack’s crankcase turned into window putty. The puny electric motor could only whine feebly when we flipped its switch. If we just had some hot water to warm up the crankcase! But where do you get hot water when you can’t pump water?

We had no choice but to manually assist the pump. This involved one person spinning the pump jack’s pulley by hand — avoiding the finger-mangling V-belt — as another person heaved upwards on the pump’s connecting rods. The pump would gradually pick up speed, and water would begin to gurgle from its spout. Hooray! Everyone gets to drink!

Bringing the frozen pump jack back to life was mildly entertaining, but managing the tank heater was downright exhilarating.

In the days of my youth, we had what was known as a “cob burner” tank heater. It was essentially an L-shaped square steel tube that was about 2 feet across and 5 feet long. One end of the tube had a hinged door, while the other featured a vertical stovepipe. This seemingly simple contraption weighed approximately as much as a Holstein bull.

We knew this because we had to muscle the heater into the tank each fall when the water began to freeze. Using a loader to hoist it into the tank would have been taken as a sign that we had gone soft.

As its name implied, we burned corn cobs in the tank heater. Cobs are not known for having a long burn time, so the heater had to be fed early and often. The fire often went out between feedings, which meant that whoever was tending to the heater had to relight it.

Few things are more fascinating to a farm boy than fire. Being told that your job description includes playing with matches is like a raccoon stumbling across a roomful of open peanut butter jars. It just doesn’t get much better. My fire-starting learning curve was steep. I discovered that while a little liquid accelerant might be good, more isn’t necessarily preferable.

Struggling to light the tank heater one particularly arctic morning, I threw an armful of cobs into the heater’s sooty maw and topped them off with a wad of newspapers. This was generally enough to get the fire going, but I was chilled to the bone and impatient, so I decided to add a splash of kerosene. And if one splash was good, wouldn’t several be better?

The howling winter wind kept blowing out my matches, so I leaned in closer to the mouth of the heater. The cows milled around beside the tank, their hooves creaking on the packed snow as they waited for their morning drink. The added pressure of a live audience didn’t help.

My head was totally inside the heater when the match’s flame licked the kerosene. I immediately heard a muffled “woof!” and a sharp “bang!” The woof was the cloud of kerosene fumes erupting in a fireball, and the bang was my head hitting the steel heater as I recoiled.

My eyebrows eventually grew back. My skull, however, gained a new and permanent lump. So whenever I see our steers guzzling water in the subzero cold, I smile. I rub the back of my head and murmur, “Thank goodness for that modern marvel called the cattle waterer!”  


A barnyard mishap leads to a scar with a story.


Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. Jerry enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere A. His new book, , is available at and at booksellers everywhere.