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Rain Barrels

Rain Barrel

Rain Barrel at the Hiram Woodward studio
A rain barrel at the Hiram Woodward studio (far right corner of building)
Rain barrels were important items in the accouterments of a Robert Strong Woodward home and studio. His artistic eye had a liking of their shape and color and patina. And he made almost daily use of them. They were included in several of his oil paintings. There are also, in the studio, some old photographs of rain barrels on the grounds of both the Hiram Woodward Studio and of the Southwick Studio.

The history of rain barrels goes back centuries. Even the cavemen are said to have saved rainwater in tanks made from animal skin. But conservation of rainwater began in earnest following the invention of the barrel. Barrels have been around for thousands of years, and until the 1900s were the best containers for shipping things. Probably initially they were filled with wine, whiskey or oils, but beginning in the 1900s their use included filling them with all sorts of materials, including china, grain, manufactured goods and even gold for shipping across the oceans and continents.

Rain Barrel at the Hiram Woodward studio
A rain barrel under the roof at the front of the Hiram Woodward Studio
Then, sometime after the invention of the barrel, man began to collect rain- water in them. Today most of this collection is for saving water to be used on gardens, especially in our western states where water is most precious. In Googling "rainwater" I discovered many interesting facts about laws, even in our own country, for the use of collecting water. For example, in Colorado even in 2009, laws were developed to limit the capture of rain-water for residential use, the assumption being that rain that fell from the sky above "belonged to the people," and collecting it before it ran into the rivers and streams made it unavailable for the public. Here in New England there have apparently been no such restrictions. Here rain barrels have almost always been a garden accouterment.

Trigger at the Hiram Woodward Studio near a rain barrel.
Trigger at the Hiram Woodward Studio near a rain barrel.
During the Woodward era, he collected the rainwater for watering the many gardens of his homes in Buckland. During the time I worked for him we used the collected rainwater for filling the batteries of the Chevrolet and the old Packard which in those days were not enclosed units, and needed to be topped off just as windshield water containers are in the cars of today. Also, Lena, the RSW nurse for many years used the rainwater for use in her steam iron. Being pure from minerals it would never clog up the holes in the bottom of the flat iron as did the well water. Rainwater is as "clean" as distilled water. Another frequent use was mentioned to me by Lena's daughter Abbie (See Abbies Story on this website). Abbie remembers that her mother, after washing her hair, would always rinse it with some of the collected rainwater. RSW had some other use for it, but I never knew, or even wondered about it, in those days. He kept a gallon jug of it in the little studio back room. It was in this room that he arranged flowers for studio vases, and took care of his geraniums in an iron sink located beside a lead-lined water storage tank. This water came from a mountain spring and was used, fortified with Ivory bar soap, to clean his brushes after a day of painting in the studio. What he used the rainwater for, I cannot imagine. I never saw him use it. But we kept the jug full for him.
A rain barrel at the Hiram Woodward Studio.
A rain barrel at the Hiram Woodward Studio.

The photo to the right shows one of the barrels at the Hiram Woodward Studio. I am sure Fabian would have used water from this for the battery in the Nash Advanced 6 in the same photo.

This next photo is of the rain barrel in use during my days of working for RSW. It was located outside the north window up against the garage building attached to his Southwick Studio. It can be seen in several of his paintings looking out the north window ... such as in Beginning To Snow.

Beginning To Snow.
Beginning To Snow A Southwick Studio painting showing a rain barrel beneath a downspout.
This barrel was a previously used bourbon barrel. For many years there has been a law in this country that oak barrels must be used for the aging of bourbon and that they cannot be reused. This is the source of many of the wooden rain barrels of today. RSW's barrel was used just as it came from the distillery. It did not have any of the additional overflow or drainage faucets inserted or filters applied above the top, to prevent leaves from washing into it. It was a simple pure intact unadulterated oak barrel except for removal of the top. The oak wood weathered beautifully to a soft brown patina and the metal staves similarly rusted. The barrel even smelled good, a sweet smell. It was distinct. I cannot describe it. It was probably something faintly reminiscent of bourbon.

The old rain barrel of the Southwick Woodward days eventually rotted out and began to leak. It had to be removed. Visitors to the studio have frequently looked out the north window and commented to us about its absence.

I have missed it. It will someday soon be replaced.

I can hardly wait!


UPDATE 2013 A traditional rain barrel has been purchased and installed in the northeast corner of the Southwick Studio.
The new rain barrel at the Southwick Studio 2013
The new rain barrel at the Southwick Studio 2013.