How Did Early Water Well Rigs Work?
This column is the next in a series about the first well rig I ever had experience with or worked on. My father had purchased a shop-built rig mounted on a Star-brand car chassis. What follows are some more details on this rig.
This rig was really a cathead-type rig when my dad bought it, and he “pulled the rope” for a number of years. When you pulled the rope on a cathead it would lift the load, and then when you released the rope it would lower the load. There is a real art to using an older manual cathead like that. If one rope climbs over the other there is no releasing it, and you have a dangerous situation.
My dad decided to improve this rig by adding a bull reel and spudder beam. He found a clutch pulley, which was quite common on older prairie-type tractors. This clutch device had a rotating drum that turned all the time when the engine was running. Inside this rotating drum were a couple of shoes — not unlike the brake shoes on a vehicle. These shoes could engage or disengage the rotating drum by applying pressure to a throw-out bearing that forced the shoes outward. This pressure was controlled by a lever. The shoe mechanism was attached to a shaft that was, in turn, attached to the bull reel.
All this was driven by large V-belts off the jackshaft. The belts of the sheaves for them were parts for an Allis-Chalmers combine. My dad was working for an Allis-Chalmers dealer, and these parts were cheap and easy to get. As I recall, the V-belt drive for this bull reel was about an inch and a quarter wide — much bigger than belts we see on modern equipment, including cars and trucks.
My father added a brake to the bull reel, and it was applied by a brake lever from a truck. This lever had a button at the top that controlled a cog bar to hold the brake tight. To apply the brake, one merely pulled on the brake lever and it would set itself. To release the brake, one pushed the top button down and the brake drum released.
Having outfitted the rig with a bull reel, my dad also needed a spudder beam. The mechanism to power the spudder beam was, I think, an old pump jack — a pretty good-sized one at that. This was controlled by a jaw clutch off the jackshaft. Now, if you’re not familiar with a jaw clutch, these are made up of two parts with large notches that fit together to engage the clutch and are pulled apart to disengage. A jaw clutch is 100 percent non-slip. When it’s engaged, both sections will rotate until the power quits or the clutch breaks. Engagement on this one was by a long lever that I recall was made from 1-inch pipe. I guess you could engage a jaw clutch on the go, but we always stopped the rotating part using a lever extended from the clutch pedal of this Star car chassis. We would stop all the mechanism, engage the jaw clutch and lock the control lever in place, and when we engaged the car clutch the spudding mechanism was going.
The spudder beam on this rig was pivoted not at the end, but about one-quarter of its length from the end. This was connected to the pump mechanism by a connecting rod. A spudder sheave was attached to the far end of the spudder beam. The geometry of this design gave the spudder sheave a stroke much longer than the stroke of the pump jack. The spudder sheave could be moved along the spudder beam to change the length of stroke. This spudder sheave can easily be seen in the overall view of this rig from my last column (“A Really Old Well Rig — the First One I Worked On,” December 2019 National Driller). This sheave is way out at the end of the beam and well above the top frame of the rig. With installation of the bull reel and the spudder beam, my father had a reasonably modern rig and he was done pulling the rope.
Of course, this rig needed a mast or derrick, and this was constructed of 4-by-4 timbers. They were tied together by a series of wooden steps and there was no cross bracing whatsoever. This mast was unique in that it extended from the top frame of the rig and not all the way to the ground. It attached to the frame with a couple of large hinges. I believe this mast had a length of about 26 feet, which was high enough for the 21-foot drill rods used in the hollow-rod method. It was stabilized and raised into the vertical position by a couple of 2-by-6 timbers. Two men each grabbed a timber and, by pushing very hard, they could raise the mast into the vertical position. The lower ends then bolted to the main frame and the rig was ready to start drilling. These support timbers were taken off when the machine was transported. One of the two pictures I have included with this month’s column shows me at about age 13 attaching the timbers to the mast with a couple of large bolts. (I’m just a few pounds lighter than I am now.) Also in the picture is the 1937 Ford pickup that my father used to tow this rig and serve as the rig’s support truck. The other picture shows the overall view of the rig in operating position.
As I write this column a few days before Christmas, we have had one rather bad snow here in southern Michigan that melted off and then mostly mild weather for this region. This is good for the local farmers, as they are still harvesting corn — a harvest delayed by wet weather earlier in the fall. If you are scratching your head and chuckling about this old rig, I can assure you I’m with you. How my father, his helpers and I drilled wells with this thing makes me scratch my head also. But we did do it, and a lot of others had a contraption much like this. Until next time, be safe and I hope 2020 is off to a good start for you.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.