Custom-Build 1950s Water Well Drilling Rig
This rig had always used 1-inch manila rope — sometimes called hemp. In the years after World War II, this rope and many things were hard to get in both quantity and quality. People tried a lot of new ideas to make up for shortages, some good and some not so good. My father found it increasingly difficult to buy serviceable manila rope. After two purchases that gave less than expected service, he complained to the hardware store where he bought it. They told him it was the best they could buy. He decided it was time to go to wire rope — or steel cable — as a drill line.
This month’s column deals with an improved rig that my dad and I first put into service in 1953. In the picture of the rig with this column, my uncle Arthur Schmitt — who from time to time served as my dad’s helper — is on the left, my dad J.P. (Phil) Schmitt in the middle and I, at age 18 or 19, am on the right. You will notice none of us is wearing hard hats, an unheard of practice today but quite common in that era.
Let me talk a bit about what the picture shows, then get into our thinking as we considered upgrading to this fine machine.
You will notice on the right a wooden framework with some sort of opaque material stretched over it. This was a wind-break and the opaque material was a kind of plastic with a light string woven or melted into it. This did stop the wind but was not very durable, so we went to wooden frames covered with quarter-inch plywood. If you look closely, you can see some of these on the far side of the rig. The picture must have been taken in the winter. The plywood windbreaks were far more durable than the plastic, but much heavier and harder to handle. We used panels that were 4-feet-wide and 8-foot-tall (a standard plywood sheet) and they were held together with irons fashioned like a tractor drawer bar and wagon tongue, and held together with a pin.
You will also notice a very prominent ad for Deming Pumps. In that era, it was not unusual to have ads for whatever brand of pump you sold and place them on your service trucks and rigs. We obviously sold Deming Pumps. Deming was a good pump company based in Salem, Ohio. They had a modern product, easily available parts and good customer service. I believe it was in the 1960s, or perhaps later, that they sold to the Crane Company, the giant plumbing and heating equipment manufacturer. Customer service declined from that point, and Deming slowly disappeared from the industry as we and other dealers found other manufacturers with better customer service. I don’t know if Deming still exists or not — I haven’t heard the name in a long time.
Now to the rig itself.
By the late 1940s, my Dad realized that the old car chassis, towed around rig he had used for years was no longer adequate. Its engine was getting worn out and towing it around had become a hassle. He had originally (with his boss) gotten this rig to do screen changes and other repairs to 2-inch wells. By the late ’40s, he was drilling more new wells. These included 3-inch and even a few shallow 4-inch wells drilled by the hollow-rod method. The old rig was inadequate, even as it labored on and did eventually get the job done. He realized he — or we, as he expected me to join the business —needed a new, larger rig.
He started looking at commercially built rigs at the first Michigan Well Drillers Association Convention he ever attended. (He liked these events and attended many, many more in his lifetime, eventually becoming a Lifetime Honorary Member of MWDA.) I did not accompany him to his first convention, as I was recovering from surgery. He came home with quite a lengthy report and two catalogs. The catalogs listed the design build and efficiency of two popular rigs of that era: the Bucyrus-Erie 20W and the Speedstar 55.
A year later, I did accompany him to the convention and we saw a Cyclone 35 rig that, like the Speedstar, was built at a plant in Ohio. Bucyrus-Erie operated out of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Dad had some definite opinions about the rigs he saw at those two conventions. In his opinion, the Bucyrus-Erie 20W was ruggedly built. Though a bit “crude,” he thought the company built it “rough and tough.” He felt its competitor, the Speedstar 55, was more nicely finished if a bit lighter. Neither of us were impressed with the Cyclone 35, mainly because all of its reels were friction driven, whereas the other two rigs had clutch-driven bull reels. Also, the little 35 looked like more of a hollow-rod machine, although I’m sure some ran cable tools on it. We could see the end of the hollow-rod era in our area and an increasing demand for 4-inch wells, which were more efficiently drilled by the cable-tool method. Rotary drilling for water wells in Michigan was not even thought of in that era, nor did that method appear on the horizon.
For whatever reason, be it price, financial terms or whatever, we decided not to buy any of these commercially built rigs. I have learned in recent years that Bucyrus-Erie especially would not hear of making modifications to their rigs. The company felt their rigs were well engineered and they knew better how to build rigs than the drillers who ran them. In the 1980s, they sold their spudder designs for both water well and oil well drilling to an Ohio company that, to the best of my knowledge, will still build you a Bucyrus-Erie-style rig. I believe Bucyrus-Erie no longer exists, at least as a domestic company. We later owned two 20Ws and, I must say, that they were a tough, well-built rig.
Realizing in about 1950 that his new, larger rig should be truck-mounted, my dad went looking for a used truck. In those days, the thought of mounting a rig on a new or nearly new truck chassis was unheard of. Why? Consider the first 20W we bought, which was mounted by its original purchaser on a brand new Dodge chassis. We were the third owners and the rig was still in good operating condition. The use of a new truck chassis was an absolute waste of that truck, and I finally sold it (less the rig) in a pretty well-rotted-out state with fewer than 10,000 miles on it.
My dad did find a truck chassis — a well-used one on a farm or a used car lot or maybe in a junk yard — and it was a 1935 Ford 1½ ton that was some truck. I will begin next time with the details of that truck.
As I write this in the middle of February, we have had a strange winter here in Michigan. We have had a number of snowstorms deep enough to plow and all have been followed with a warm-up that melted most of the snow. As I look out my office window while writing this column, I see many bare patches of grass and even the backroads are clear of ice and snow. The day after tomorrow my wife, Shirley, and I will attend the 2020 Michigan Ground Water Conference in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth is a small town in mid-Michigan made to look Bavarian. They are famous in that town for chicken dinners. I’m sure we will get our fill of chicken while there. This conference, like the rigs of 1950s, is far different from what it used to be — not better, not worse, just different. If I learn anything radically different while there, I will write about it next time. ’Til then, work hard, work safely and remember to enjoy life too.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.