Well Drillers Long Gone But Not Forgotten
The older well driller was Henry “Hawkeye” Ballard, born in 1875, who drilled with those rigs in the same area from the early 1900s to the early 1930s. When Hawkeye passed away, he left the rigs and machine shop to Lester Davis, who married Hawkeye's niece, Berenice Ballard, in 1936. Drilling was slow back in those days with the old core drills managing only 2 feet to sometimes 5 feet a day, which was as much as they could drill in the hard rock of southern New York state. Sometimes it would take three months to a year to drill a single well, depending on the depth. The Davis brothers drilled around 200 wells while they were in business - including one for my great-grandfather, George W. Hyatt - and they got $7 a foot back then! Lester also was a machinist and had his own machine shop with lathes and a welder to make his own tools and rig repairs. Lester, whose greatest heroes were Wilbur and Orville Wright, could fix just about anything, but then, he had a very good teacher, Hawkeye Ballard.
One time in the late 1970s, a front wheel on my truck spun a wheel bearing, and I could not get a replacement part. My father told me, “Take that up to Lester's. He'll fix that on his big lathe.” And he did!
The Davis brothers had such a backlog of work that they sometimes would call my father, Albert M. Hyatt, who was nicknamed “Hardrock” Hyatt. As a young man, my father worked for a well driller named Richard Carroll. In 1954, Albert married my mother, Ella Daley, and in 1958 started his own business with an old Bucyrus Armstrong 33W chop drill, which he bought in Cold Spring, N.Y. Manufact-ured sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, it was full of rust and didn't run. So, with the help of friends and a big, old farm tractor borrowed from his good friend Theodore Baker, my father towed it back to Holmes, N.Y., where he lived. Of course, at the time, some folks laughed at the rusty drill and called it junk. But my father got it running, mounted it on a 1943 Chevy all-wheel-drive truck and painted it yellow while he was drilling. Those folks, if any of them still are alive, are not laughing now!
In 1965, my father bought one of the first new air-rotary rigs in the area, a Chicago Pneumatic 650. My father died in 1986, but Albert M. Hyatt & Sons continues on, operated by his wife, Ella, and his sons Milton, Rex, Charles and Jeff, along with grandsons Justin and Michael. Hyatt's Pump Service installs the pumps and does tank installations. Hyatt Well Drilling now has three high-powered air rotaries and several service trucks, but we keep the big lathe that Lester owned and a Bucyrus Erie 20W, mounted on the '43 Chevy truck, in memory of two great old well drillers.
Special thanks to Berenice Davis, Lester's wife of 56 years who is still kickin' at 90, for the photos and information; to Rebecca Oakley, their granddaughter; to Desmond Davis Jr. and his wife, Maxine, Freddy Ballard and Linda Genovese. Also thanks to Frank Oveis for helping me get Lester's old core drill, to Nick Nikola and Kevin “Moose” Kehoe for helping me haul it and to Vincent McGee and Ronny Peck for rig parts.