The Michigan Ground Water Association (MGWA) was organized in the late 1920s as the Michigan Well Drillers Association (MWDA) with the help and encouragement of faculty members from Michigan Agricultural College. This school in East Lansing, Mich., was the original land-grant school founded at its present location in 1855. It later became known as Michigan State College, and today, is a thriving educational institution known as Michigan State University.

By 1929, records indicate that MWDA had become successful enough to hold its first convention, held on the Michigan State campus. Around 1940, MWDA was sent off on its own by the college’s faculty (as was planned from the beginning) and held a convention elsewhere. Records indicate that conventions were held even during the dark days of World War II and on — including the boom days of the late 1940s and 1950s known by us older drillers as the golden age of well drilling. Conventions were held in various cities around Michigan at fair grounds, hotels, armories, indoor hockey rinks and, eventually, at convention centers built for that exact purpose.

For many years, conventions followed a theme that was repeated year after year. The number of days varied from four down to two, but new rigs and pump hoists (when they were developed) were displayed both inside and outside. There were a large number of exhibit booths — one year, there was even as many as 120 — that showed the latest drill bits, pumps, tanks, accessories and just about anything one would need to drill a water well. I believe the record attendance for an MWDA Convention was right at 1,100 people in 1959. Oh yes, there were social events including a bang-up big time party one night and a banquet another night. There was always a lot to see and a lot of friends to visit with or perhaps even argue with about a new product.

The first educational event ever held at an MWDA convention was in 1973. I know this because I was the convention chairman that year, and when I announced a single seminar on the afternoon of the last day, I was given, “What for?” in spades by a long-time member and former officer. He said that drillers and helpers were not going to the convention to sit in a classroom, but were going to see new products and have a good time socially. Over the years, educational sessions increased by several times over and attendance varied from “nothing special” to some pretty good crowds. I remember that in 1989, MWDA had over 280 technical members and guests at a single seminar during the convention in Battle Creek, Mich. This was at the height of the environmental boom — and while events for technical drillers, scientists and engineers do very, very well at the NGWA annual meeting — they don’t do very well in Michigan anymore. 

For 2018, the leadership of the now MGWA decided to hold a conference rather than a convention. They also arranged to run a series of courses for those attempting to enter the field as registered well drilling contractors. I often hear people say they are a licensed water well contractor in the state of Michigan, but this is simply not true. Since the beginning of being a regulated industry in 1965, all of us have been registered well drillers and pump installers. The process to become registered is very much like how one becomes registered in other trades, but there are some important differences that I will not go into in this column. Also at this so-called refresher course were quite a number of inspectors, sanitarians and other public health officials — and that is a good thing.

So, the 2018 conference was held in Acme, Mich. Weather for the event was unusually warm, and the only snow we saw was a very small amount in the woods where the sunshine didn’t show. This is fortunate, as this area is in the snow belt of Michigan and can get some pretty serious storms. The location was a resort built some 30 years ago, but it’s still in good shape and well-known for a golf course called the Bear that was designed by the great golfer, Jack Nicklaus. This resort is also somehow connected business-wise and physically to a casino a few miles away with a private road linking the two. I’m pretty sure at least some of the attendees made a visit there.

The conference got underway on a Monday morning with a wide variety of sessions. Starting with an important DOT update, they also had segments on well design; the use of chemicals for well cleaning and drilling; a session on why the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool used in Michigan doesn’t work; and the 2018 McEllhiney Lecture, which was sponsored by NGWA with funding by Franklin Electric and presented by Todd Halihan, Ph.D., a professor from Oklahoma State University. MGWA also had a presentation on water conditioning, with a special emphasis on PFAS contamination, as we have a large problem with that near Grand Rapids. The annual business meeting was held first thing in the morning on the second day with decent attendance and absolutely no contest for office — all officers were re-elected by unanimous ballot. I missed all or part of a couple of sessions, so I can’t report on them.

The exhibits this year were of the table-top variety, held in a room across the hall from the seminar room. I believe MGWA had about 25 tables representing a broad range of companies that serve our industry. A few had some small items on display, many had literature, and a very small group had handout souvenirs. This is unlike past years when we would come home from the convention with bags full of stuff. Some items weren’t very memorable, but I still open my mail every day with a letter opener that was the souvenir from the 25th convention in 1953. The only social event this year was the annual banquet, and while my wife, Shirley, and I did not attend for personal reasons, I understand it went well. 

Lest we forget the all-important ladies — a number of them attended the sessions. Another small group went for lunch and a shopping spree on the first day. On the second day, a group enjoyed lunch at a restaurant compliments of the MGWA Auxiliary. It’s important to remember that many of our wives and sisters are an integral part of our businesses. Many of them enjoy the conferences and conventions as much as the men. 

Well, there you have a report on the 2018 MGWA Conference in case you missed it. The conference ended mid-afternoon on the second day, early enough that we were able to drive the 260 miles home and arrive in the dark, but not dead tired. This was my 66th MWDA/MGWA Convention, and I will say that I have learned something new or met someone interesting at every one of them. Was it like the 1980s? No, it was not. Was it a good event? Yes, it was. Was it different? Of course it was, as almost everything is different from what it used to be. 

I’m looking forward to the 2019 conference, and although a site has not been selected yet, I understand the MGWA will return to southern Michigan where most of the members are. When you read this, nearly all or all of the 2018 conferences and conventions across the country will be over. I might suggest you consider attending the South Atlantic Jubilee held in late July or the 2018 NGWA Convention scheduled to be back in Las Vegas in December. You really can’t go wrong attending a state, regional or national convention — there is something to be learned at any of them. You might just come home with a new rig.

This is being written two days before the official date of the spring season, and it’s pretty dreary here in Michigan. It gets quite cold in the evenings, although the days are getting more and more pleasant. It’s sunny today and my lawn looks like a dead grey mass. It will turn green pretty soon. Best to you and yours, and think about that next convention you are going to.


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