Water Wells and World War II: Ever Try to Drill without Casing?
WWII Was a Tough Time for the Water Well Industry
Water well and pump professionals, like my father, faced significant challenges during World War II and for several years after it ended. The workload was about normal, but military needs made both materials and help nearly impossible to find. Anyone who lived through those years or has read about them knows about rationing for basics like gasoline, tires, shoes and meat. Not as well-known is the rationing for steel pipe, pumps, tanks, valves and other parts that make up a water well system. Often, these items were not available.
Every town or city of any size had not only a draft board to provide people to the military, but a rationing or allocation board. (I may have the name wrong but you get the idea.) If a farmer or rural resident with a well needed a new pump or a considerable amount of steel pipe, the resident or the contractor doing the work had to make a case for the purchase to this allocation board. If the farmer or homeowner was out of water the request would quickly be granted. But a contractor just going to the supply house to get material might be told it was not in stock or even available.
Imagine trying to drill a well in 2020 and not being able to buy casing or a pump to finish the job. That’s the way it sometimes was in the 1940s. Things didn’t instantly get better the day after the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
Remember too that now many of the products that we use to drill a well, including casing, well screens, tanks and other pipe, are made of some sort of plastic. That was not the case back then. Plastic pipe was unheard of, at least to my father. The only pipe available for purchase was steel. Pumps of that era —piston type, stroke type, deep well and jet types — were all cast iron, which was in short supply. It was a sellers’ market in the late part of the war and then for a few years after.
If a pump man went to the supply house and wanted to get a ¾-horsepower jet pump, the supply house people might say, “Yes, we have that pump and you can buy it, but you have to take 525 feet of 1-inch galvanized pipe too.” If the contractor said, “I have plenty of pipe in stock,” the reply was probably, “Too bad. You buy the pipe or you don’t get the pump.” This covered just about every product needed to make a water system.
After allocation stopped, some contractors turned to gamesmanship between them and competitors. Let’s say a contractor came to the supply house and found a fresh shipment of those ¾-horsepower jet pumps — perhaps a quantity of 24. He would buy the whole 24, even if it was a 5-year supply for him in that size. He had the pumps and his competitor did not.
Was this dirty pool? It sure was. But the game was played that way. I remember a contractor I knew bought a 5-year supply of lead packers, used in those days above the screen to seal between the riser pipe and the casing. He had a monopoly on those lead packers (which are no longer legal to use, by the way). If you were his friend, he would sell you one. If you were not, he would claim he had none to sell. Yes, competition could be cutthroat in those days.
Other, older contractors have told me that their fathers and grandfathers in the business went to Canada, where pipe was not in such tight supply. I live about 60 miles from the large town of Windsor, Onatario, right across the river from Detroit. The closeness would have made the trip well worth it to get what you needed, even if you had to pay duties.
Another contractor told me his father would get his hands on old oil well pipe, clean it as best he could and use it in water wells. The OD on this so-called 2-inch pipe matched standard pipe so it could be threaded with a regular 2-inch threader. The ID was smaller than standard pipe, so this pipe might have been schedule 80. They were installing single-pipe jet pumps and on one brand had to grind off part of the ejector body (the part that goes in the well) for it to fit.
I can remember many times my dad scraping the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) seal off Rigid Steel conduit and using it for water pipe. I think the Rigid Conduit was basically 1-inch steel pipe with a smoothed out inside so as to not cut the insulation on wire. You made do with what you had and were glad that you had it — it meant you could get the job done.
As I said earlier, steel and cast iron were the materials of choice in these years. Sometimes manufacturers substituted other material — with varying success. I remember one manufacturer that made a pump with an aluminum body. Steel machine screws tapped into the sections of the aluminum body held it together. These were number 8 or number 10 size screws — a fairly small diameter. As readers are probably aware, aluminum and steel don’t mix. Well, actually, they do, just a little too well. The aluminum body would seize on the steel screws, making them impossible to remove and, of course, extra pressure on the screwdriver would snap them off. Today, we probably have an anti-seize compound that would keep this from happening, but I don’t remember anything like that in the 1940s.
One thing that was in good supply in this era was money. Plants worked 24/7 at good wages turning out products for the war. Employment was near 100%, so bars, nightclubs, movie theaters and ballparks kept busy as people attempted to relax, forget the problems we faced and spend some of that cash.
I think you get the idea. The World War II years were not a fun time to be in the water supply industry. As I said, this did not end with VJ Day. We hit the early 1950s before supply and demand equalized. But things did eventually return to some sense of normal.
I hope you and yours are doing well in these unprecedented times, and all are healthy. Our governor recently allowed drillers to go back to work drilling new wells (as opposed to just essential repairs). It may be a long time but we will get through this and, hopefully, it will be a learning experience. One last thought: We’ve had a lot of rain, so my infamous lawn is green and should stay that way for some time. May God bless and protect all of you.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.