Eriksmoen: Miracle that saved ND boy's life also inspired a country music classic

Promotional photo of Bob Atcher for his "Meadow Gold Ranch" radio show in the early 1950s. WENR / Meadow Gold Dairy (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
Promotional photo of Bob Atcher for his "Meadow Gold Ranch" radio show in the early 1950s. WENR / Meadow Gold Dairy (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The ForumWENR / Meadow Gold Dairy (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

Country music classic "Cool Water" is a song that tells the real-life story of a young North Dakota boy who became disoriented after trying to find a stray cow in the Badlands.

It begins:

"All day, I've faced a barren waste / Without the taste of water, cool water / Old Dan and I with throats burned dry /And souls that cry for water / Cool, clear water."

For three days in the midsummer heat, Bobby Atcher, on his horse Old Dan, searched in vain for familiar landmarks, other humans or water. Finally, he saw something that gave him hope. Off in the distance of the barren prairie, he spotted a "big, green tree." He knew that the tree needed to be receiving water from some source, either a pool or small stream.

When he got to the tree's location, his heart sank because there was no sign of water. Badly discouraged and dehydrated, Bobby climbed off his horse, under the shade of the tree, and lifted his plight to God: "The shadows sway and seem to say / Tonight we pray, for water / Cool water / And way up there, he'll hear our prayer / And show us where there's water / Cool, clear water."

A short while after Bobby prayed, Old Dan began pawing the earth's crust with one of his front hooves, and soon water began percolating to the surface. Miraculously, the horse had unearthed an artesian spring, likely saving both his own life and that of his young rider.

Years later, when Bob Atcher was 22 years old, he told of his experience to Bob Nolan, a singer-songwriter with the Sons of the Pioneers, and Nolan composed "Cool Water." The song became a major country hit when it was sung by the Sons of the Pioneers and again later when it was sung by Vaughn Monroe.

"Cool Water" is now a country standard with recordings by Frankie Laine, Marty Robbins, Roy Rogers, Bob Atcher and Hank Williams. It was featured in six motion pictures, and is rated No. 3 of the "Top 100 Western songs of all time" by the Western Writers of America. But "Cool Water" also has great crossover appeal, with recordings by Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Joni Mitchell, Leo Kottke, Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan.

The reason Atcher knew Bob Nolan was because he, too, had become a well-known country singer. During his career, Atcher recorded hundreds of songs, was a radio star and appeared in two motion pictures. After retiring from his musical career, Atcher served 16 years as mayor of Schaumburg, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

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James Robert Owen "Bob" Atcher was born May 11, 1914, on a tobacco farm in Hardin County, Ky., to George and Mary (Ray) Archer. George was the Kentucky fiddle champion and led a family band that played Appalachian folk music and bluegrass.

When Bob was 4, the federal government acquired the family farm, making it a part of the Fort Knox Military Reservation. After selling their farm, the Atchers moved to North Dakota and lived with Mary's parents on a farm in Walsh County, but George later purchased land in western part of the state. Bob enjoyed hanging around the ranch hands where he learned cowboy songs.

When he became older, his father "traded his best hunting dog for a guitar" for his son, and when Bob became skilled at it, he joined the family band. In 1926, the Atchers returned to Kentucky, where Bob honed his vocal skills and guitar playing. He began performing as a solo act at shows in Lexington and was delighted to find that the audience loved to hear the cowboy songs he had learned in North Dakota.

In 1928, the precocious 14-year-old went with his good friend and frequent singing partner, Forrest Curl, to see if they could get a job singing on radio. The two youngsters met with Elmer Sulzer, the director of broadcasting at the University of Kentucky, who also provided daily university broadcasts for station WHAS. WHAS was a commercial NBC affiliate, which meant that it had a much more powerful radio signal than college radio stations.

Sulzer hired the duo, and was so impressed with Atcher's musical ability and knowledge that he offered him his own show. Atcher accepted his offer, and the show was called "Early American Songs," with Atcher not only singing the songs, but also giving some history about each song's origin.

Bob Atcher and Bonnie Blue Eyes as seen in 1943. Unknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
Bob Atcher and Bonnie Blue Eyes as seen in 1943. Unknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The ForumUnknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum


At WHAS, Atcher was given the title the "Kentucky Mountain Minstrel," and was joined by another young singer from Kentucky, Loeta Applegate. Atcher was attracted to the young blue-eyed singer and the two began singing duets. Believing that she had a promising future as a country singer, she adopted the show business name "Bonnie Blue Eyes."

"By late 1931, Atcher's fame had spread far enough that he got an offer to go to Chicago and appear on WBBM," a radio station with controlling interest held by CBS, and the shows were frequently aired nationally. For the next three years, Atcher was invited to appear on major radio stations all over the South and the Midwest.

In 1934, WBBM hired Atcher on a permanent basis and his performances were broadcast coast to coast. Largely due to him, Chicago was becoming the country music mecca of the northern half of the U.S. Now that Atcher was feeling financially secure, he married Loeta in 1935, and soon thereafter the pair became the most popular husband-and-wife duo in country music.

We will conclude the Bob Atcher story next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.