My wife Shirley and I recently attended the annual Michigan Ground Water Association (MGWA) Convention held in Battle Creek, Mich. I think this was my 63rd MGWA Convention, but only 58 of those in a row, as I missed the 1957 event. The convention, as it has been for several years, is far smaller than it was in the glory days of our industry. These days seem in the past here in Michigan and most contractors that I talk to are just “keeping the doors open,” although a few are doing quite well. In my opinion, our industry is a mature one and you don’t see many new products or hear of new ideas at these conventions. I did see two new things this year and both could be called gadgetry. Years ago, we would have up to 21 new drill rigs and pump hoists on display. This year, we had one brand new rig, one almost new rig that was cleaned up for display and a really antique rig that was, in reality, a boom and an engine-driven cathead for use with rope. The decline of this convention, or perhaps shrinkage, is nobody’s fault. That’s just the way it is.
MGWA Annual Convention
MGWA’s annual convention, like a lot of industry events, is a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues in the industry. Source: Valerie King

One of the real benefits of going to conventions — and this year was no exception — was a chance to spend time with longtime friends, perhaps share a meal or two and catch up on what’s been happening in their lives. I did see several very close industry friends and we spent some time together that we all enjoyed. Several attendees came up and said they enjoyed these columns and that makes me feel good. One retired driller, though, who is my best friend in the industry and who I have known for many decades, called me after we returned home and said he took exception to some of my comments about well pits written a couple of columns back. He further said he thought I was putting down the well pit and he kind of missed these things. Now this fellow is well spoken and was not really mad, and we discussed the matter at some length.

As we talked it became clear that both my friend and I had nothing against the properly built well pit. We agreed that only a very few pits are made and maintained in a proper manner. A couple of the fellows who made comments to me at the recent convention said they agreed that only a few pits were really correctly done. I guess to make this point in the article and at a risk at upsetting my friends in the public health industry, let me say again I think the properly constructed and maintained well pit was a good and reasonable way to ensure pump operation here in the frozen north.

The good friend that called me had a couple of well pit tales that I have got to relate to you readers. He said he once worked on a pump in a well pit that was 12 feet deep. Now folks, that is a well pit. The average pit in Michigan is about 5 feet deep. My friend said that he believed that this one was of that depth, that is 12 feet, so that a shallow well pump could be used. If the water level in the well that terminated in this pit was somewhere between 25 and 30 feet deep, I can see where the extra deep pit could accomplish this, but goodness you would want a really good ladder to go down into this thing.

My friend also agreed with my earlier comments that well pits were a handy dandy place for owners to store things, and this could be a problem in itself. He said he was once called on a service job and learned that the owners had acquired two large snapping turtles. What they planned to do with the turtles, he did not know. Perhaps they were going to butcher them for turtle soup. However, they decided to “store” the turtles in their well pit. They then forgot about doing this and the poor turtles died. Today, these people could be prosecuted for cruelty to animals. Of course, after death the bodies of the turtles decomposed so when my friend opened the access cover he was nearly overcome with the stench. He told the owners if they got the turtle remains out of there and some fresh air in, he would fix the pump. He did not mention if he ever went back.

Another fellow that I visited with at the recent convention said he agreed that the well pit was a favorite of snakes, especially in cold weather. This fellow, who has done a lot of jet pump work in his days, said that he has found snakes coiled up in the motor of these jet pumps — wonders seem to never cease.

My friend’s tale of the turtles reminds me of the time that my dad and a fellow that I went to high school and college with, who worked with us in the 1950s, went out to service a well about 10 miles from where I presently live. This was a 4-inch well drilled through the bottom of a dry cistern. Drilling in the bottom of a cistern or old dug well was a popular thing in years gone by. When we opened the access hatch in this cistern, we found about a trillion ants — they were everywhere and in large numbers. I think my dad, who should have known better, said we will pour gasoline on the ants but not light it. This of course was pretty stupid, in that all we needed was a spark and we would have had a fire like you could not believe. We poured a number of gallons on the ants from a 5-gallon can we carried on our service truck to refuel our well rig.

I must say, the gasoline really did the ants in; pretty soon we had several billion dead ants and a few live ones that were leaving the area quickly. My dad instructed my friend, whose name is Tom, to go down into the cistern and get to work. Tom was not down there very long when he said he felt woozy. Dad told him to get out of there and Tom crawled up the ladder to the surface and fell over in a dead faint. Dad then told me to take Tom’s place in the cistern and the same thing happened to me — I quickly became woozy. When I got to the ground surface I too pitched over feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. After lying on the ground for a time, both Tom and I recovered.

It now dawned on all three of us that gasoline fumes had displaced the air and that is what we were breathing down in the cistern. We told the customer we would be back the next day when the fumes had dissipated, left the access cover off — creating yet another hazard — and came back and got the job done a day later. This happened nearly 60 years ago and I can play the scene out in my mind like it was yesterday. Pouring this gasoline on the ants had to be the stupidest thing either my dad or myself ever did in the industry.

My dad continued on in the industry and in life proper ‘til he passed away at age 92 in 1982. Tom went on to a distinguished career in law, held a key position in the U.S. Department of Justice and has retired as a professor of law at the University of Michigan — he spends a good deal of time in Florida. I have gone on to doing well and pump work and writing these columns, which bring back memories both good and bad.

Next time I really will write about residential well houses. As this is written one day before spring begins, all our snow is gone. Even the unpaved roads have dried up and lawn mowing season can’t be far away. If you are going anywhere near a well pit, be very, very, very careful.


For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.