A divine business

Montanan claims uncanny ability to locate water -- and just about anything else

  • Dowser Vern Bandy at home.

    Sam Western
  • Dowser Vern Bandy at work.

    Sam Western

Name: Vernon G. Bandy

Occupation: Dowser

Hometown: Bozeman, Montana

Distinctive physical trait: Despite being skinny and wiry, Bandy has the inner thermostat of a polar bear. He's been seen happily dowsing in shirtsleeves in the midst of a snowstorm.

Really unusual trait: Says he can locate -- with something approaching regularity -- just about anything: water (both pure and contaminated), gold, drugs, oil, dead bodies, and snakes, all with his nylon dowsing rods.

Recent acquisition (at age 78): First passport. In November 2009, developers flew Bandy to Costa Rica after they had drilled three dry holes on their nascent 2500-acre resort. Bandy says he found them 71 gallons per minute at 93 feet.

Most endearing attribute: Still crazy about his wife, Alice, of 51 years. Calls her three times a day when on the road. "She sure put up with a lot as I learned about the dowsing business."

Vern Bandy takes a humble pleasure in poking holes in hydrologists' assumptions. Those who study the ways of aquifers and groundwater declare that you can sink a drill bit just about anywhere in the earth and find water. "Maybe," says Bandy, flicking one of the Benson and Hedges cigarettes he sneaks while driving. "But what kind of water? Hard? Soft? Maybe laced with arsenic. How much water? Enough to supply a house or barn? And at $32 per foot in drilling costs, just how deep do you want to go to prove your scientific theory?"

Bandy is a dowser who plies the inscrutable art of finding objects or liquids with a divining rod or stick. Today, he's headed to dowse a well six miles west of Rapelje, a ranching community in south-central Montana. Beyond his window stretch low-lying fields white with alkali. "This is tough country for dowsing," he observes. "Lot of bad water. Sulfides. Sodium and salt."

After we pull into a pasture being transformed into a homesite, Bandy heads to the back hatch of his trusty Buick SUV (he puts 35,000 miles on it annually) and straps on an equipment belt (supported by suspenders) loaded with flagging, spray cans, hammer, and five sizes of nylon dowsing rods.  He developed these -- ranging from one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch in size -- in conjunction with the late Charlie Bowman, a professor of agricultural engineering at Montana State University who claimed dowsing rods helped him locate perch while ice-fishing.

Observing Bandy at work is a cross between watching a rain dancer and a no-nonsense surveyor. Gear clacking, he takes out his smallest rod and walks a straight line; when he feels the rod pull to earth, Bandy marks the spot with a flag. He continues walking in the same direction until the end of the rod rises towards the sky. He takes out another flag and sticks it in the ground. He has just marked the width of what he calls the water "vein." Then, using a stouter rod (if one of his bigger rods pulls hard, it means more water), he flags the vein until he's found the area of greatest concentration of water or "heavy water," as he calls it, a term that would tickle any nuclear physicist. There, he hammers in a piece of rebar, which he sprays at bottom with orange and at top with blue: his trademark.

What comes next addles the mind.

Using his smallest rod, Bandy stands over the newly marked well, silently, for perhaps 40 seconds to a minute, his jaw trembling slightly and lips moving gently. He is talking to the stick, measuring depth and volume. The dowsing rod rises and falls like some priapic oracle. There is no scientific or statistical evidence supporting Bandy's ability to find anything by dowsing. Still, he has kept records (which he'll show to anyone) that he says support his claim to have dowsed over 4,000 water wells with 90 percent accuracy, and hundreds of gas and oil wells. He says he's roughly 70 percent accurate on depth and volume.

Just ask Dale Price, an accountant, farmer and developer in Three Forks, Mont. In the 1950s and '60s, Price's father pin-cushioned his 3,000-acre wheat farm looking for water, without success. Eventually, he dug up a piece of damp ground with a backhoe, sunk in a perforated piece of culvert, and siphoned the water half a mile through a hose to his house. Price's mother wouldn't drink it.

Price inherited the farm and wanted to build houses on a portion of the land. Water, however, remained a problem. In 1992, Price hired Bandy, who dowsed 60 wells. Thus far, Price has drilled and hit good water at acceptable rates of flow in 18 out of 20 wells. In essence, a dryland wheat farm has been transformed into a parcel of ground with 18 possible homesites. That totally changes the economics of the land.

Bandy takes his powers in stride. He might be described as a near-octogenarian leprechaun with eyes that, honest to Pete, really twinkle. He eats fried food with impunity, favors lots of sugar, has no fear of excess coffee (the sweeter the better), and is a deacon in the Presbyterian church of Bozeman, as is his wife.

He was born in 1931, in Ekalaka, Mont., into a line of dowsers and well drillers. His father held Montana well-driller's license number eight. Bandy worked with his father during high school summers, and got a feel for dowsing in Carter and Powder River counties -- dry places where wells made the difference between survival and being starved out. The pair used ancient drilling equipment and turned the drill bit by hand. Dowsing was simply part of the process, he says.

Bandy is devoted to protocol and routine. He never lays his stick on the ground, and rarely forgets things in his car. The back of his SUV is laid out like an engineer's closet, including records from previous dowsings, tools, and long cloth bags containing various rods. Even some drillers, notoriously dismissive of dowsers, concede Bandy's skills. Troy Hauser of Red Dragon Drilling in Manhattan, Mont., says he's worked around dowsers most of his life "and wouldn't give a dime for a dozen of them." Except Vern, he says. "Does he scare the hell out of you? He scares the hell out of me."

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