Publication Date

Spring 2017

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Michael Ann Williams (Director), A. Ashley Stinnett, and Ann K. Ferrell

Degree Program

Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The practice of gathering water from community springs in Kentucky constitutes a rich and complex research setting for the study of folklore beliefs and practices. Local knowledge construction, nostalgia as an evaluative process, contested views about purity and impurity, the protection and retention of a “public commons,” and the crisis which ensues when infrastructure maintenance and the delivery of safe drinking water are no longer guaranteed to communities, are all relevant to this vernacular practice. My thesis explores these topics, informed by fieldwork I conducted in nine Kentucky counties, which included formal and informal interviews with individuals who have used springs, as well as participant observation of spring sites.

Roadside water sources are used by the public for drinking water, and are vestiges of the public commons. In addition to gathering water, these sites allow us to gather and study folkloric practice and knowledge. Historically, community springs were utilized before public water systems were implemented, providing a critical source of water for travelers, or for those who did not have private access to a reliable water source. Yet today, even with the presence of municipal water systems, many people still gather water from springs. My thesis integrates archival/historical library research, participant observation, and oral history narratives collected in 2016 as part of a Kentucky Oral History Commission Project Grant, in order to illuminate two fundamental research questions: Why do people prefer to get water from springs today? And what cultural meanings are constructed through the continued engagement with this tradition?

I examine the historical use of these resources, their relationship to the implementation of municipal water systems, and how localized knowledge about water purity is formed and put into practice in this region. I also explore the use of nostalgia, collective memory, and narrative for constructing place and landscape, as well as theorize on how springs function as public commons resources today. I also use photographs to convey ethnographic knowledge distinct from the written word, providing an opportunity to convey sensory information about the spaces I describe in my research.


Folklore | Public Health | Social and Cultural Anthropology