CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Well driller Randy Gebke usually uses a geology database and other high-tech tools to figure out where to sink new water wells for clients. But if asked, he'll grab two wires, walk across the property, waiting for the wires to cross to find a place to drill.
Gebke is water witching, using an ancient method with a greater connection to superstition than science.
Thousands of wells have gone dry this summer in the worst drought the nation has experienced in decades. Some homeowners are spending as much as $30,000 to have new ones drilled, and Gebke said most potential customers in his area expect water witching to be part the deal.
"Over 50 percent of the time in that conversation, they ask do we have a witcher on the crew," he said. "And my response is, 'We have a witcher on every crew.'"
Water witching, also called divining or dowsing, goes back to before the Middle Ages and involves using a forked stick, metal rod or piece of wire that mysteriously points to water underground. Although scientists and professional groups say there is no evidence witching works, some well drillers say it usually does.
"I'm a wire man. ... I use two wires, and when they cross, that's where the water usually is," said Gebke, 56, the general manager of Kohnen Concrete Products in Germantown, Ill.
Doc McClanahan, 46, who owns Doc's Well & Pump Service in Farmington quietly acknowledged that he too will witch for water if a customer asks. He favors wild cherry branches for their flexibility and, though he says he has no idea how witching works, insists it can.
"You kind of get a feel for it," McClanahan said. "It'll twist in your hand."
Cherry is a common choice, Gebke said, but no one chooses willow.
"That pulls toward dog squat," he said, laughing at the thought of looking for water and finding a pile of something unwanted instead.
The National Groundwater Association, a trade group for well drillers, has officially disavowed witching as "totally without scientific merit."
And scientists who specialize in water are, at best, skeptical.
"I'm not going to dispute it because you hear too many stories," said Mark Basch, a hydrologist who heads water rights and use operations at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. But, he said, there's no scientific explanation for it, "not in any of the books I read in school."
Witching is an old practice. The U.S. Geological Survey, in a pamphlet on the subject, says cave paintings found in North Africa from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago show someone who appears to be witching for water. A German book on mining from the 1500s references the practice.
But while witching was common in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Christian church condemned the practice as the work of Satan. Even an 1861 Ohio Supreme Court decision found that the way water flows underground was too big a mystery, too "secret and occult," to be subject to law.
Jon Jung had never seen water witching until early August, when he hired the company Gebke works for to drill a well for a home he has planned near Mascoutah, Ill. He said two men went separately into the woods with branches from a wild cherry tree and determined where the well should be dug.
"I didn't know what to think, I was just hoping they were right," the 40-year-old Jung said.
His well has been productive, and though Jung has no idea how witching works, he wasn't surprised that it seemed to.
"All the old-timers talk about it, they swear by it," he said.
For others, the idea still seems a little odd. James Dooley's family has been in the well-drilling business in the past, and he relies on a well for all his water.
But if someone offered to dowse for water on his property in Leavenworth, Ind., "I don't know what I'd think," the 26-year-old said. "I'd think they'd probably be a little crazy. ... I just don't see it happening."
Gebke understands the skepticism, and he makes a point of saying he's a serious well driller, with decades of experience, service in professional groups and training at seminars and conferences. But he's convinced water witching works, and he tells a favorite story to support his belief.
About 20 years ago in the area where he lives and works, a church that needed a new well hired an engineer, who directed drillers to try one spot after another. None yielded enough water.
So, an old witcher was called to come over from a local nursing home.
"He hung his (witching rod) out of a pickup and they drove him around," Gebke said. "He said stop right here."
And there, Gebke said, they hit water.
The U.S. Geological Survey pamphlet doesn't exactly say witching doesn't work, but it suggests many success stories are probably the result of "finding" water in areas where it would be harder to miss than hit.
Even McClanahan notes that what no one hears about from witchers are the misses.
"You drill down and get all kinds of water and you think you're a genius," McClanahan said. "You tend to forget the 99 times you didn't get any water."