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The Soapbox: The incredible story of the Kress family basement well

Off and on in the early 1960s, Ramsey Lake experienced several algal blooms that forced boil water advisories. Don Kress’ enterprising parents decided a basement well was the best way to get clean water and soon, the whole neighbourhood heard about it. The Kress’ could’ve made a killing selling their free water, but, as Kress tells it, they did the exact opposite: they gave it away for free to people who lined up down their street for a bucketful
The Kress family: in back are Camillia and Peter Kress, with Ken on the left and writer Don on the right.

In about the early 1960s, Lake Ramsey, then the only source of Sudbury’s drinking water, experienced an algae bloom that made the water unfit for human consumption.  

The city issued a boil water advisory, but even after boiling, the water was not palatable. Then, a year or maybe two later, there was another algae bloom.

My mom and dad, Peter and Camillia Kress, discussed the idea of having a water well in the basement to tap into groundwater. It was dad’s idea, but mom supported it. They both grew up on farms so well water was not a foreign idea to them. The ‘nest’ must be warm and dry and be supplied with food and good water; the basics of human survival since time immemorial.  

There was no guarantee of success and the purchase of the necessary hardware was a risk since money was tight, but they decided to go ahead and try.

Peter and Camillia Kress outside the King Street home where their basement well helped their neighbours through several boil water advisories in the 1960s. Image: Don Kress

Lalande Hardware was on the southwest corner of Notre Dame Avenue and King Street, in the Flour Mill. The building had four sections, all open to each other, because each section was managed by a member of the Lalande family.  

The grandfather (Monsieur Lalande) managed the hardware section on the southern part of the main floor. Above this was the section managed by his wife, where she sold housewares items. The other two sections were clothing and fashions. The main floor, north side, was ladies’ and the upper floor north side was mens’. The mens’ section was managed by Monsieur and Madame Lalande’s son and the ladies’ fashions was managed by his wife.

Monsieur Lalande is the one I remember best. He was maybe 70 years old, a barrel-shaped man who wore baggy pants held up by suspenders. He walked slowly with a shuffle and did not say much. 

He always wore shirts with pencils in his left shirt pocket. Monsieur Lalande smoked and rolled his own cigarettes. Most of the times I saw him, he had a ‘rollie’ hanging from the corner of his mouth. It was usually not smoking as it had gone out.  

Whenever Dad went to Lalande’s Hardware, he always dealt with Monsieur Lalande and the old fella always knew where everything was.  He was very knowledgeable and offered good advice on how to do things.

I still remember the day my dad took me with him when he first approached Monsieur Lalande with his water well project. I remember them talking about the ‘sand point’, which was to be the first part to be driven downhole. 

It was a 1.25-inch pipe, perforated with a filter of sorts around it so water could pass but sand and grit would largely be filtered out. It had a steel point at one end and the pipe was threaded on the other end. Short pipes would then be coupled to the sand point and driven downhole in sequence.

Dad did not buy a pump right away. He needed proof of concept first, so he bought the sand point and enough pipe to get him to a suitable depth. A hole needed to be chipped out of the concrete floor and dad did this with a cold chisel and a hammer.  

He knew that a metal sledge hammer would not be the right tool for driving the pipes into the ground so he built his own wooden mallet. The driving of the well began.

Dad hit bedrock at a suitable depth. He had hit ground water with a slight positive pressure. So it was an artesian well, but it still needed a pump. Dad bought the pump from Lalande Hardware and installed it. It worked great.  

It was a small pump and when a lot of water was being used at the same time, the pressure would drop and we would wait until the pressure built up again. It was most noticeable when showering. If someone flushed a toilet when you were showering, the water slowed a bit, but it was fine. You get used to things the way things are.

A year or maybe two went by and my parents’ water well project paid off, not only for our family but for the whole neighbourhood. 

Lake Ramsey had another algae bloom and again the water was not fit to drink. We were fine and had very good water. Our relatives would come over and get water, and it did not take long for the word to get out. 

We had neighbours come over and ask if they could take a bit of water from the hose bib at the front of the house and offered to pay. Mom said to take the water, but refused payment. Very soon after, we had dozens of people queued up for water, the line going out to the sidewalk and down the street. This went on all day. 

That little pump ran steady, and Mom and Dad knew the electric bill would be way up, but they still refused payment. Mom even took some of the peoples’ water jugs and containers and offered to fill them up in the evening when the pump could catch up to the constant demand. The people would come by the next day and get their jugs that Mom had filled with water. 

Peter and Camillia Kress at their kitchen table in 1975. Image: Don Kress

Dad had to sometimes stop the water draw for a while during the day to let the pump motor cool down. I remember him going into the basement and putting his hand on the motor to feel the temperature and make sure it was not going to burn out.

I don’t recall how long the situation lasted, but it might have been days or even weeks until the water from Lake Ramsey was safe enough to drink again. 

Our house on King Street was the place to get safe drinking water during that time and all who came expressed their gratitude. 

I remember my parents being both grateful and proud that our family not only had safe, clean water to drink, but that they were able to share their good fortune with any who came, most of whom they did not know since they came from afar. 

When Mom was asked by neighbours why she did not capitalize on the situation and ask for payment for the water, she said, “Un bon jour, on va avoir notre récompense au ciel” (“One day, we will have our reward in heaven”).

As I look back to all that my Mom and Dad did for us, I must say that I appreciate them even more now. Back then, it was an amazing experience, but the thing about our memory of amazing experiences is that we appreciate them so much more as we look back on them. 

As the years go by, such memories are farther back in time, and the farther back we look, the more those memories are cherished.

PS: Later in life, maybe in my teens or 20s, I heard that one evening, when Monsieur Lalande was locking up the store for the night, someone mugged him and robbed him. Apparently, he never fully recovered from that assault and he died some time later.

Don Kress lives in Greater Sudbury.


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