A Working Oil Lease in 2002

| March/April 2003

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.


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