CHICAGO — Americans believe.
We believe in democracy, opportunity.
Some believe more than others. But then, some also believe vaccines are not safe (about 28%, according to a recent Wellcome Global Monitor survey). Polling during the 2016 presidential election found almost 50% of Americans believe Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. And ideology is not always a predictor of belief: A majority have long felt that the JFK assassination was not the work of one man (61%, says a 2013 Gallup poll).
Politics aside, some 14% of Americans also believe in Bigfoot, according to a 2013 poll conducted by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling firm of North Carolina; this same poll found that 7% of Americans still believe the moon landing was faked, while 9% insist that fluoride is being added to their tap water for dark and nefarious reasons.
Which brings us to the water pump in Schiller Woods.
It’s a hand pump, just south of West Irving Park Road, near Cumberland Avenue.
There’s nothing conspiratorial about it, and if you know the pump I’m referring to, you need no directions: For you, there is only one pump, only one source of water in the Chicago area worth discussing. You believe in this pump. Perhaps your parents swore by it — as did their parents. Indeed, a very unscientific survey of the people using the pump — conducted by me, every now and then since June — found about 75% of people taking water from this pump believe there is something extraordinary about its qualities and/or history.
“At home, I drink nothing but this,” said John Butryn, who lives on the Far Northwest Side. “No soda, nothing artificial. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll drink my water like a fish.”
Morning, night, winter, fall, spring, summer — someone is usually at this pump.
Actually, quite often, there is a line of someones, entire families even, shouldering milk jugs and carrying crates of water bottles, waiting to bring home many gallons of what flows out.
Meanwhile, across Irving Park Road, on the north side of the street, a short walk away, is another, very similar pump. Most of the time, though, it sits silent, unloved and little used.
Because that pump is not this pump.
And this pump, the one on the south side of the street, the one with nonstop parade of regulars, the one with the mystique and community of believers, has meant a lot of things to a lot of people, for generations. It was installed in 1945 to serve picnickers, just another of the hundreds of water pumps erected in the forest preserves of Cook County. Today, there are about 300 pumps, yet only this hand pump needs to be serviced with some frequency.
“My grandmother brought us here all the time when we were kids,” said Letta Kochalis of La Grange Park as she filled several jugs with her sister, Mary Berchos. Both are in their 70s.
“People say it has a specific taste, and that it’s not like other waters. And it’s not. It’s the best water in the world! You’ve heard it’s magic, right? I don’t know if it is, or if it has the rejuvenating qualities they say. But I don’t try other pumps. I hear the pope blessed it.”
I heard that several times.
Ask those who swear by this pump to explain why this pump, and you hear a lot of things: You hear it tastes better than tap water, it keeps colder for longer, it contains holistic qualities, it’s good for heart and teeth, it’s unfiltered and therefore not chlorinated or fluoridated. They note how important a pump like this is in 2019, at a moment when the White House is seeking to roll back clean water restrictions and the Flint water crisis still looms large. They say they simply don’t trust their government agencies with their tap water.
Then once they are done being pragmatic, some of their voices go low and get whispery and they say with a wink: The water from this pump will keep you young an unnaturally long time.
They’ve heard it’s a fountain of youth.
They’ve heard the water comes from a reservoir originating in Michigan, running beneath Lake Michigan, all the way here, a mile and a half from O’Hare. They’ve heard, no, the water actually comes from a spring in Wisconsin. They’ve heard no, no, no, the water comes from Lake Huron. An assistant superintendent of maintenance for the park told the Tribune in 1957 that he believed (mistakenly) the water originated in Lake Superior. I was told by a middle-aged man filling his Jeep with jugs that he heard the water is really a mistake, an unintended tributary that connects to a vein of pure water secretly maintained by wealthy North Shore families. And also, yes, I was told, by many, that the pope himself blessed this pump, in 1979.
“Holy water” — that’s what they call it.
One woman from Peru who didn’t want her name in the newspaper said that she had been told the water comes out of a remarkable stream of holy water, flowing out of Michigan.
She added, it’s a nice story, she realizes it sounds improbable, yet she wants to believe.
For the record, to play the wet rag of reality: In 1979, 40 years ago this week, Pope John Paul II did visit the Northwest Side of Chicago, but his motorcade stayed primarily along Nagle and Milwaukee Avenues and the Kennedy Expressway (and barely slowed down). There is nothing to suggest — from newspaper accounts to official itineraries — that the pope set aside the time to bless a single hand pump. Indeed, the Forest Preserves of Cook County maintains there is nothing supernatural or even that special about the pump or the water it delivers. They have been explaining this for many years. They have heard the stories.
According to Chip O’Leary, deputy director of resource management for the preserves, topographically speaking, the pump sits on 500 acres, some of it oak woodlands, with a bit of prairie and savanna thrown in; the soil is alluvial, typical of fine-grained soils coming out of the Des Plaines River. Tom Rohner, the preserve’s director of facilities — he oversees the pumps — said it’s simply well water, that it comes from an aquifer 85 feet below the surface, that it’s not treated, that it’s not a natural spring (which bubble up regardless of pumps), and that it’s tested quarterly for contaminants (and comes back clean every time).
Also, that neglected pump across the street?
It pulls from the very same well water.
It’s the same water.
Of course, if there were a conspiracy to keep Cook County’s fountain of youth a state secret, that’s what the Forest Preserves would want you to think — right!?! To be certain, I ran a sample of the pump’s water through a $30 home-testing kit, and here’s what came back: The pump’s water (compared with Chicago tap water) is quite low in copper, and very low in iron; its pH is on the high end of the scale; and its alkalinity is low. In keeping with a lot of well water, it is very hard when compared with tap water. Which means, it’s high in minerals and would contribute somewhat to nutritional recommendations for calcium and magnesium. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering, the village of Schiller Park doesn’t get its water from the forest preserves but from the city of Chicago, which filters its tap water from Lake Michigan.)
How does it taste? My first swig was a bit sulfuric, with a faint rotten-egg smell, though the longer the water remained in my bottle, the better it tasted; in fact, within a few hours, the smell faded entirely and the water, stored at room temperature, stayed cold even a day later.
And yet, my middle-aged legs still hurt, my joints still ache. I don’t feel younger.
I suspect it would test low for supernatural influence.
Rohner said the only thing remarkable about the well is its followers, its devoted community of regulars, and the constant lines standing at it. He said tests of its water come back almost identical to tests of other nearby wells in the preserves. He said he started in his job about a year ago and spoke to the person who had it just before him and decided: “There is no justification for (the water’s legend). It’s history, it’s belief, it’s folklore and family history.”
“But I’ll tell you,” he added, “whenever the handle breaks, we’ll get a call in five minutes flat.”
The pump looks out on a large field.
It is slick with grease and clacks and groans. There is no sign directing you to it. The forest preserve once erected a sign noting that usage of the pump was limited to 10 gallons, but that’s a losing game. Now there’s just a notice not to the feed wildlife that wander in from the surrounding meadows. The pump sits at the end of a long path, which is shoveled in the winter. During spring rains, pumpers hold umbrellas high for their fellow pumpers. The stream of customers feels endless. One car pulls away, two pull up. A grandmother with grandson fills six mayonnaise jars; a jogger fills a water bottle then jogs off. An old man wearing his work uniform pushes a hand truck stacked with large office water jugs; he fills each then loads them into his trunk. Chris Berndt, a University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student, rode up on a scooter and filled several small bottles. He told me he has been coming here for two years, partly because he doesn’t trust the fluoridation treatment in tap water.
I also meet a lot of first-generation Polish, many from nearby Portage Park.
They say the pump reminds them of spa waters in Poland. They say they heard about the water from other immigrants, soon after arriving in Chicago (and many have been here 30 and 40 years). They always say the person who told them about it lived to be very old. They say its water makes great ice, superior tea and healthier plants. Some say, having grown up under communism, they prefer to get their water direct, sidestepping officially treated water.
Marian Wlodarski of Norridge placed a branch beneath a jug, steadied the spout, lining it up with the tap then began pumping. “This feels like home,” he said as he worked. “A lot of Polish, we knew pumps like this in Europe. It’s not magic. The pope didn’t bless it. My wife uses it (to pickle) cucumbers. It’s not magic — that’s fake news! But this water is better than other waters.”
Who needs evidence when you have belief?
Jane Risen is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She has studied magical thinking. She notes there is tenet of psychology that instructs, when something seems wrong, a person should take measures to correct. “There is the quick way of responding that we use all the time, and the slower, deliberate process, and those two responses explain a lot. But partly they miss situations like this, where I think some at this pump land. We can be of two minds about a thing we recognize is not rational. Especially when the costs (of belief) aren’t too high and it comes with a sense of community.”
Elizabeth Osika, at 70, in a long flowered skirt, carried large clear jugs to the pump and started filling, then, with the help of other pump regulars, she carried each back to her car.
She did not stop. She worked an assembly line of jugs efficiently and chatted nonstop, “I don’t know if this water is magic or healthy or not. But the water that flowed out of mountains in Poland tasted like this, and I have been drinking this water for 20 years now and I am not dead. Nobody complains about this pump — it’s the only place on Earth nobody complains!”
She filled her last jug. I said, next time if there’s a line, there is that pump across the street.
“What?” she shouted. “That pump! The water is bad there, it smells bad. I’m sticking here.”
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