A Working Oil Lease in 2002

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Last summer, while visiting my in-laws near Bradford, Pa., I called on my friend Merle Zetler who lives in nearby Rixford, Pa. Merle has several oil wells on his property, pumping them on a regular, as-needed basis, usually every Saturday morning. On a previous visit, I had asked him if I might stop in some time to shoot some photos and get some information on his working lease, as I knew it would be of interest to GEM readers. Merle said that would be fine, so armed with my trusty Canon AE-1 - and an understanding wife, Kay, with a notepad -I showed up at his place on a cool Saturday morning this past October.

Merle was all set to pump oil when Kay and I arrived, and as we walked up to the building housing the engine and the pumping power he described his operation for us. Merle had three wells drilled in 1980 (one well on the property was drilled back in the late 1800s), and the rest were in place when Merle bought the property in 1953. He has 10 wells altogether, seven of which are pumped every week, 52 weeks a year. He says they produce about five or six barrels a week, and with oil currently bringing about $22 a barrel he's hardly getting rich from the operation.

Working Bovaird & Seyfang
The engine powering Merle's lease is a very pretty 30 HP 1924 Bovaird & Seyfang (it's pronounced Bo-vard and See-fang). Originally a 25 HP engine, Merle modified the engine with a larger, 11-inch bore cylinder to make it a 30 HP engine to give him the extra horsepower he needed to pump all seven oil wells at once.

Merle fired up the engine for me, and it fired to life easily. The starting drill is straightforward: Turn on the gas, listen for the gas coming in, retard the WICO OC magneto so it fires after top dead center, check the oilers and pull the flywheels back (always clockwise, the way the magneto is set up). About the second time through and it gave a nice 'chuff' and she was off and running. As soon as it's running smoothly, open the water valve and advance the spark - the big old girl is a pretty quiet runner. A stovepipe coming down from the ceiling quiets the noise of the reed valves in the air intake, and a 6-inch iron exhaust pipe from the bottom of the engine goes to an underground tank outside the power and then exits vertically up and out of the ground. The exhaust isn't very loud, just making kind of a 'pung, huh, pung, huh, pung, huh' sound as it runs.

The eccentric "power" that pumps Merle Zetler's oil lease. Barely visible to the left at about the 9 o'clock position is the flatbelt pulley driven by the Bovaird & Seyfang engine. The metal lines hooked to the eccentric run to pumps on the seven oil wells Merle pumps on his lease.

One of the seven wells on Merle's lease. A line from the power can be seen coming in from the right and then linking to the well pump. Another line from the power is just visible running in the background.

Engine speed is controlled by a Pickering No. 1 vertical flyball governor. Watching it run, you think the engine's going to stop before the flyballs ever close up and let the engine fire some more, but it doesn't. It always picks back up again. When collectors run engines 'on the cock,' as they say, the engines run very smooth and evenly, but when they're running off the governor and really working they sound a lot different.

Merle says this engine suffered from poor water circulation in the head, resulting in overheating and warped heads. To improve water circulation, Merle drilled and tapped the bottom of the head, fitting a water pipe that feeds cooling water from the water pump from the bottom through both the cylinder and the head. A large, external cooling tank supplies cooling water.

The PowerMerle has the only heated and insulated power shed I've ever seen - he doesn't have to worry about freeze-ups and the Bovaird & Seyfang is easy to start in any season. His heating fuel is natural gas, a by-product of the oil pumping process, and he also uses this essentially free, natural gas to heat his home and light his outdoor lights. Must be nice.

The actual oil 'power' eccentric is in an unheated back room, and it takes its power from a flat belt running off the Bovaird & Seyfang.

The Bovaird & Seyfang is lubricated by a Manzell force-feed oiler, which is driven off the same rod that activates the WICO magneto. Oil is force-fed to all the engine's bearings and critical components. Crankcase lubrication is by the usual splash system, a galvanized cover over the crank and rod.

Running a power is an interesting exercise, and an experienced pumper like Merle can tell just by watching the action of the rod lines when a well is pumped off. A rod line will make three slight dips on each stroke when oil is pumping, but when the oil is pumped off, the rod line only makes one little dip. Interesting stuff.

My father-in-law was a pumper for South Penn (Pennzoil) in Gifford, Pa., before he retired 20 years ago, and I remember watching him start and run these old engines. The woods were full of them 30 years ago, and when they started going out of service some people had trouble sleeping ... they were so used to hearing them running in the distance at night they couldn't adjust to the lack of the familiar sound of a working power. Now, except for the very few that pump regularly, that sound is almost never heard in the oil country. I know of maybe six or seven leases in the Bradford area that are still pumped using the old oil field engines, and it's sad to see them almost all gone.

A rod line running down to a well is attached to a 'tie down,' which holds the line when it crosses a low spot or a ditch. Normally the rod lines run through well-worn and lubricated grooves in wooden posts, such as the post just behind the tie down.

Chan Mason's wife, Kay, takes notes while talking with Merle Zetler as they stand next to a separator tank where oil separates out before running down hill to a storage tank.

Merle gets ready to 'hook off' a rod line. When the rod line moves in (to the left), Merle lifts the bottom link up to engage the lower hook. When the line moves out (to the right), the top rod line loosens and comes off, disconnecting that well from the power.

But fortunately, collectors are actively saving and restoring these old oil field engines for the benefit of collectors and generations still to come, who will some day admire and enjoy these old machines as they watch them run. I have a 22-1/2 HP Bessemer I run at shows, and most people in upstate New York have never seen one. I am working on trying to get a 40 HP Bovaird & Seyfang I have come across. This 40 HP engine is a hot tube engine that starts on gas but runs on diesel, and it has a sideshaft belt-driven governor. It weighs about seven tons, I am told, and how I'm going to get that engine off a hilltop power and 200 miles to Oneida, N.Y., should be an interesting project for summer 2003, Lord willing. Keep up collecting, restoring and enjoying the good old stuff.

Contact engine enthusiast Chan Mason at: 3755 Mason Road, Oneida, NY 13421, (215)363-4488.