Marion farmer and rancher David Oborny possesses a unique ability that borders on a preternatural talent.
In some circles his skill is called “dowsing,” but Oborny refers to it as “witching water.”
Regardless of the name, his ability allows him to locate groundwater that is at times up to 100 feet below ground using nothing more than a common household tool as a divining rod.
“I always use pliers,” Oborny said. “I don’t understand it, and I don’t know why, but it usually works for me.”
Oborny keeps his pliers handy in a leather sheath on his belt, often using them to fix farm machinery, but he holds them an entirely different way when he is witching a well.
While walking slowly forward in a straight line, he spreads them apart grasping each handle so that the pliers “mouth” faces up.
“The deal is, your little finger has to be under the handle of the pliers between the first and second knuckle,” he said. “I just try to pull the pliers apart as wide as they will go as I put pressure on them.
“When I get over water or larger metal ore like a pipe line, they snap down. I can’t hold them up even if I try.”
Once he finds a water vein, he also approaches it from an intersecting direction.
Oborny said the possibility of finding a suitable well spot greatly increases when veins are about two feet wide. However, he is not unique in his talents. Nor is “water witching” a new phenomenon.
Historically, dowsing was recorded as early as the 15th century in Germany. Freshly cut Y-shaped branch from Willow or fruit trees were often used. Like Oborny’s pliers, when the stem of the Y-branch pointed to the earth, water or metal ore was sometimes discovered.
About 30 years ago, Oborny’s friend and former coworker Kevin Hill saw him witch a well for the first time.
“I’d always heard about people who can witch water with a stick. It’s kind of a folklore sort of thing, but I’ve never seen anyone use pliers before,” Hill said. “It surprised me when David did it. I thought he was fooling me. I grabbed the pliers and tried holding them up, but I couldn’t — they would’ve torn my hands.”
Hill became a believer.
“Dave doesn’t go into a trance or anything,” he said. “While he’s doing it, he can carry on a conversation just as relaxed as can be.”
Over the years, he has witnessed Oborny witch several wells, and he has made a fascinating observation about his friend.
“He can’t wear a wrist watch,” Hill said. “They won’t last. I think whatever’s in him shorts them all out.”
A couple weeks ago, Oborny witched another well for Hill. He said Oborny uses insulated pliers now, so he doesn’t scuff up his knuckles.
Though he has seen him do it too, Oborny’s oldest son, Tom, has not inherited his father’s talent. However, he said the ability is more common than some might think, because he has seen other farmers use two L-shaped wires to witch water.
“When the wires cross they say water is usually there,” Tom said. “I think copper wire is supposed to work best.”
Oborny’s wife Sam didn’t know her husband had the ability before they married.
“I’ve seen him do it, but I can’t explain it, and my mom still doesn’t believe it,” Sam said. “I’d like to know the science of it because it really is kind of a strange talent.”
Oborny admitted his ability is not a “100-percent guaranteed deal.” However, he estimated that he has found water with his pliers “about 90-percent of the time,” over the last 40 years.
In the last several years, Oborny has witched about six wells per year, including wells for Hill, Kelly Novak, and Ed Vinduska.
He recounted the day he learned of his talent.
“It was in the ’70s when I was about 13 years old,” Oborny said. “We were short on water at the home place and wanted to drill a well. Dad knew our neighbor Bill Stika could witch water. Bill came over and determined where the well should go using the Y stick and then pliers. Everyone was running around the yard trying, and they couldn’t get it, but when I tried, the pliers just worked for me.”