The Best Well Digger in Clare County

Paraphrased from the story of the same name from the book “At Ease With Col. Sharp,” by Dale Sharp.

Who knows if this story about the well digger, Oliver Gosine, is true or not?  Oliver lived until the ripe old age of 101 and some of his stories and exploits were recorded in “Ticket to Hell, A Saga of Michigan’s Bad Men.”  Its author, Roy Dodge, reported that Oliver used to work for saloonkeeper and brothel owner Jim Carr, who was one of  the most dispicable people this state has ever known.  Dodge also wrote that Oliver cut ice during the winter in Harrison’s Budd Lake.  However, Dodge doesn’t mention anything about Oliver’s well-digging prowess and it’s not mentioned elsewhere as far as I know.  Now Oliver is also known for a tombstone he built for himself complete with a mirror.  The tombstone can be seen in Harrison’s Maple Grove Cemetery.  And the mirror, well, that’s another story and the subject of another post on my blog.  This particular story, true or not, is about Oliver, well digging and a horse.  I hope Col. Sharp, wherever he is, will forgive me for rewriting his story and publishing it on my blog.

bucketIn the spring of 1889, Harrison was still basically a lumber town but homesteaders were building and claiming the land in the area.  The conversion from lumber to farming was just beginning. Jim Carr, undoubtedly the most despicable person to ever live in Clare Countywas history.  It was a fresh time and Oliver Gosine was the best well digger in Clare County.

Gosine was kept busy digging wells.  People literally stood in line to employ him.  However, the only way Oliver liked water was mixed with a little bourbon.

One May morning in 1889, Oliver was getting ready to dig a well for a homesteader when the sheriff rode up and asked Oliver to stop what he was doing and dig a well for the county jail.  Apparently the well at the jail had just about gone dry and they needed a well pronto.  In the interest of the village’s welfare, Oliver took on the job.

The way Oliver dug a well went something like this: He would dig down the first six feet by hand.  Once he had a hole six foot wide and about the same deep, he would take a large bucket and toss it down into the hole. Now the line was secured to Oliver’s horse, Old Gray, with a long rope.  Oliver would climb down into the hole, fill the bucket with sand, climb in the bucket, yell “git up” and then slowly he and the bucket would be taken to the top as Old Gray moved slowly away from the hole. Oliver would unload the bucket and repeat the process until he struck water—usually 18 to 30 feet down.

Things apparently went well on this dig until the third day.  It was then Oliver struck a rock. Deciding dynamite was the only way to deal with the problem Oliver had Old Gray “git up” to pull him and the bucket out of the hole.  Oliver then commenced to walk over to Hughes Brothers Hardware and bought himself five sticks of the explosive, a blasting cap and a couple feet of fuse. Going back into the hole he packed the five sticks under the stone, tamped it all down, lit the fuse, climbed into the bucket and yelled up at the horse to “git up.”  Well, nothing happened. Oliver yelled louder and still the bucket and he remained unmoving in the hole as the fuse burned closer to the dynamite meant to blow the rock to smithereens.  In a state of panic, Oliver dove out of the bucket toward the rock, crawled over to the fuse and pulled it out at the last second.

A couple of hours later, one of the local judges was walking home and spied the horse standing half asleep at the top of the hole and Oliver at the bottom of it fit-to be-tied.  The judge led the horse away from the hole bringing the bucket up. When the bucket and well-digger reached the top Oliver lit into the horse with a litany of expletives in two languages (Oliver also knew French).

The judge went home not too much afterward swore he heard a gunshot but passed it off as routine in this rural community.  The next day walking to work he noticed a large crowd around Oliver’s not quite completed well. He peered over the edge and saw Old Gray standing at the bottom, blood dripping from its head and what appeared to be a boot print on its rump.

Sheriff Thompson was summoned, and although the evidence was circumstantial Oliver was arrested for cruelty to animals.

It apparently took two days to put the horse in a sling and pull it up the 20 feet from the bottom of the well, apparently none the worse for wear despite its wound.

As to Oliver, he went to trial.  Although the boot print on Old Gray’s rump matched the one Oliver wore and the fact Oliver had a derringer in his pocket that the sheriff sniffed and announced that it had been fired, Oliver was found not guilty by a Judge Green.  Rumor had it that Green was beholding to Oliver since the latter had taken the rap for illegal pike spearing  while Green hid in the bushes.

Anyway, the next day Oliver and Old Gray were seen heading off toward Leota for some fishing. The next morning Oliver returned alone–and on foot.  When he was asked what happened, Oliver said that Old Gray had just stopped in the road near Jed McCord’s place, rolled over and died.  Oliver said Jed offered him $5 for the carcass to feed Jeb’s hounds, and he took the offer.  “Now gentleman, what would you have done?” Oliver would ask with a twinkle in his eye.

By the way, the story doesn’t say whether Oliver ever finished that well at the jail.  However, it does say that on the day Oliver reported that Old Gray had died of “natural causes”  Jed recalled hearing a gunshot. You can draw your own conclusion.

Categories: Clare County, Harrison, History, Michigan | Tags: | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “The Best Well Digger in Clare County

  1. joel

    I don’t remember this one but Colonel Sharp was my Dad!

    • Thanks for your comment and hope your family doesn’t mind me paraphrasing the article. It’s in your dad’s book that I found at the Harrison library. I talked to Jon Ringelberg who knew your dad. Sounds like he was an interesting man.

      • joel

        I don’t mind at all it still sounds like my Dad. My copy of his book is in storage right so I can’t compare it to your re-write. You do have a couple mistakes if you read it over you will see.
        I am thinking of re-typesetting the book and doing new illustrations. I did the original ink drawings when I was a kid. Also the book is just a few of the stories selected by our librarians from his weekly newspaper column. I am going to see if I can find the rest for the reprint. Dad passed away back in 1983 the year I moved to california. I miss him and I know many people still in Harrison miss him and his sense of humor too.

  2. Cody

    Did I tell you Oliver Gosine was my great great grandpa?

    • I knew that. Not sure if from you or someone else. You’ve got some interesting characters among your decendants. I wish I had met a couple of them. Although we have a few of their stories, I wish we had more. And I bet they would have made for interesting dinner companions! Marty

  3. My Dad, Colonel Sharp was known for embellishing stories for comedic effect and surely this story was passed down to him over the ages. I assume some of it is based on actual events. At the very least I think my Dad captures the sense of the era, place and the characters who inhabited it. Seems your Great Grandfather was one of them Cody. On a side note oddly enough my Dad wanted to name me Cody. My Mom wouldn’t let him so my sons middle name is Cody.
    Joel Sharp-

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