Columnist John Schmitt Gets into Drilling History
In my last column, I wrote about a lifting device my dad either made or had made for lifting and lowering drop pipe into wells. I had intended to write this time about some other lifting and lowering devices that we used that may or may not have been unique. Some of you readers may have used very similar devices. I wanted to include pictures of these things as they are a bit hard to describe in words, but I have had photographic problems and that column will have to wait.
In the meantime I’m going to write about a really, really old drill rig — the first one I had any experience with. That story goes all the way back before the United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But first, I want to give readers a bit of family history about how my father and then I got involved in the well drilling and pump industry.
My father was born on a family farm a few miles south of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in February 1890. His father was a German immigrant and his mother born in southeastern Ohio. My grandfather came from Germany to Ohio, met and married my grandmother and had a daughter born in Ohio. Grandfather and grandmother Schmitt were many years apart in age. They moved to Michigan on the insistence of my grandfather and bought a 90-acre farm. In 1892, they had another son.
This farm had some only sort-of-good soil in spots but was quite fertile in others. I understand my grandfather raised vegetables, may have milked some cows and raised poultry for sale, including ducks and geese. My grandfather died long before I was born, but my grandmother lived until I was 24.
My father grew up as a farm boy and graduated in the early 1900s from Ann Arbor High School. He was the only member of his family to do so. From what I have heard and read, a high school diploma in those days was akin to a bachelor’s degree in 2019.
He would drive a one-horse buggy the 6 miles from home to school, and once the horse dropped dead in the harness on the way. My grandfather got him another horse to drive and he and my uncle dragged the carcass away for burial.
My father said that, on occasion after school on Fridays, he would stay in town and go to some sort of show. I don’t know if this was live or perhaps an early motion picture. He said having put in a long day he would sometimes fall asleep on the way home. He would wake up with the horse standing in front of the barn on the family farm. The horse didn’t need guidance. Talk about an autonomous vehicle! We hear this may be in our future, but it was around long ago — except my father wasn’t traveling 70 mph.
After graduation, my father worked at a few assorted jobs as well as on the farm with his brother and, for a short time, his father before he passed. Shortly after the end of World War I, a local implement dealer approached my father with an offer of employment, which included housing at this dealer’s home, at least to begin with. He needed a good mechanic and my father was very good with tools and machinery. In the years I knew him, he was a practical mechanical engineer. It’s too bad he couldn’t have gone to college to study that subject but his family could not afford tuition, books and housing. This was decades before anybody heard of student loans.
So my dad worked as a tractor and implement mechanic and his mother, brother and sister kept the farm going. Shortly after he went to work for this implement dealer (who sold Allis-Chalmers tractors and equipment) he began to sell Delco plants. You and I would call these generators. The farmers in rural areas (where else would they be) really wanted these plants, as there were no electrical lines throughout the country as there are now. These were in the future.
You might think the first thing Mr. Farmer wanted to power with his Delco plant was a pump to move water. Actually, it was not. Almost everyone had a windmill and a hand pump for that. No, the first thing he wanted was a milking machine. This dealer began to sell DeLaval milking machines. As he was essentially the lead mechanic at this company, my dad installed many, many of these. Often, these were two-pail units so the farmer could milk two cows at once — not quite what we see in the milking parlors of today.
However, the second thing the farmer wanted to run with his Delco plant was an electric pump. Having one meant he didn’t have to depend on the fickle winds of Michigan to pump his water. Somewhat naturally, the installation of pumps was given to my father. These were mostly stroke or rod pumps, since the jet pump had not come around yet and the submersible was a figment of imagination in some inventor’s mind.
Now my father, like it or not, was a pump installer. Maybe I should say installer and repairman, because in those days pumps required a lot of maintenance. The practice around here at the time was for well drillers to drill the wells and then leave the job. Pumps were installed by plumbers, farm equipment dealers and, sometimes, handymen. A really good driller friend of my father’s told him that if he was driving down the road and saw this man’s rig to, by all means stop in, and he would get him the pump job. He would even use his rig to lower any drop pipe needed, but then he was long gone as he wanted nothing to do with pumps.
Next time, I’ll talk about how my father and his boss acquired a well rig and, believe me, today you would shake your head at the thought of running this thing. However, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, this type of contraption was what many people used to drill.
As I write this in mid-October, we’ve not had a hard frost yet in southern Michigan and my famous or infamous lawn is still growing. We’ve had a rather pleasant early fall with decent temperatures and enough rain to keep things going. Just about all the corn and soybeans in my area are still in the field, although I have seen some beans harvested recently. Until next time, work hard, work safe and if you’re at Groundwater Week in Las Vegas when you read this, enjoy that event too.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.