One man and many friends bring a piece of history back to life
While drilling a well for a friend on Bundy Hill Road in Pawling, N.Y., in September 2004, my brother Rex and I stumbled upon an old wooden well-drilling machine in the woods. It had been lying there at least 60 years and it was so rotted that we could barely make out what it was. Most of the wood had turned to dirt. I told Rex I had to get that old wooden rig. It was on the land that Lester Davis had run his well-drilling business out of back in the late 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
Lester W. Davis and his brother Desmond B. Davis operated Davis Bros. Well Drilling in Pawling for nearly three decades. They even drilled a well for my great-grandfather, George W. Hyatt, on Farmers Mills Road. They received $8 per foot back then. I know because I have the original contract from Davis Bros. with my great-grandfather’s signature. They also drilled for Dan Heinchon of Heinchon Dairy, which for generations was a significant business in Pawling. I know all of this thanks to Rebecca Oakley, Lester’s granddaughter. She has kept all the contracts for the jobs her grandfather and great uncle did, plus many photos.
My father was a well driller, too, who had started his own business in 1958, Albert M. Hyatt & Sons Well Drilling, Patterson, N.Y. He knew the Davis brothers, of course, since Patterson and Pawling abut one another, and they got him some well jobs. Davis Bros. drilled its last well in 1959.
I was raised around well machines all my life. Well drilling is a Hyatt family tradition, so it goes without saying that I had to have that old machine, whatever its condition. Besides, I knew Lester when I was a boy. He was one smart man with lots of knowledge. He could run a metal lathe, weld, you name it; and according to my father, was a damn good well driller, too. So, I contacted Vincent McGee, the current owner of the Davis property, and he was only too happy to let me take that old “wreck” off his land.
One hot summer day I went with two of my friends, Nick Nikola and Kevin “Moose” Keyhoe, and, sweating all the while, we pushed and pulled and winched the machine up on my trailer. Once I got the rig home, I did a lot of research on the wells that Lester drilled in the area and learned where he had gotten the machine. Its previous owner was Henry “Hawkeye” Ballard, whose niece, Bernice Ballard (she’s 91 and still going strong), married Lester Davis. When Hawkeye passed away, he left his wooden wagon drill rig to Lester and another rig mounted on a 1918 Brockway truck. When the wooden rig wasn’t safe to use anymore, due to decay and rot, it was taken off the wagon, and the wagon and the engine were sold to Fred Ballard, Bernice’s brother. Fred used the old engine for many years to run a buzz saw to cut firewood and the wagon to haul the trees to be cut.
When Fred heard I was restoring his brother-in-law’s old well machine, he asked if there was anything I needed to complete it. “Yes, an engine,” I said. Fred had the very one that had come off the old rig – a 9 HP Fairbanks-Morse. When I offered him $800 for it, which is what they go for on eBay, Fred said, “Let me tell you a story. There was a man with a real nice hunting dog. A friend of his had been nagging him to sell the dog. He wouldn’t do it. Then one day he changed his mind and sold the dog to his friend. Later he went into town to do some food shopping. When he got home, he ate. Then he said to himself, ‘I should never of sold that dog. Now I don’t have the dog and don’t have the money either!’”
So, I began looking on eBay. I found an engine in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was a 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse, a little smaller than the one Lester had on his rig, but it would work. I won the bid at $650. Now to get it to New York. I had it shipped to Flamburough, Ontario, closer to my friends Ann and Elden Turcott in Dundas. They were coming to New York for New Year’s and agreed to get the engine, store it and bring it down. Some real nice friends!
As soon as I got the engine, I began restoring it – it needed a lot of work. Before I was finished, Fred, who’s 83 years young, came by, saw the engine from Canada, and said, “You know that engine is a little smaller than the one I have, easier for me to move around. I will trade you the big engine Lester had on that old drill for this smaller one.” I said, “You got a deal!” I finished the restoration a week later, delivered it to Fred’s house, where I then picked up the 9 HP Fairbanks-Morse. My nephew Justin helped me that day. We used a crane mounted on one of the big service trucks we drill wells with. So, I then began restoring another engine, the one I wanted in the first place, the one that had belonged to the rig back in the days when Davis Bros. was in business.
Once I got the engine running I started on the old drill. Another friend of mine, Gunner Peterson, happened to be sandblasting the body of a big old dump truck. When I told him I needed some sandblasting done, he said, “Sure, bring ‘em on down.” All suited up, he sandblasted his stuff and mine. We wound up painting it all that day, too.
Now for the woodworking. My brother Rex has a band saw on his property and also trees that he burns in an outdoor wood furnace to heat his log home. I gave him the dimensions of the lumber I would need to make the main section of the frame for the old well machine, and he cut and milled out 6-inch-by-6-foot white oak timbers for me. Then I had to learn how to do mortise and tenon work, which is how they would have built houses and the well-drilling rig back then. For this I did lots of research on the computer. I even ended up making my own jig to hold the router from jumping around. I then drilled the white oak beams, and I used the original steel rods that held it together. When I had finished the main frame section, another friend of mine said, “This old rig will never be done in my lifetime.” I expect that guy is eating his words as he reads this.
Now and then I would stop at Fred’s house to chat a spell. Fred asked, “Is there anything else you need to finish that old well rig?” I said, “Yes, a wagon to mount it on.” Fred said, “Let’s take a walk.” So we walked to the back of Fred’s house and there was one of the nicest old IHC wagons I had ever seen. It had steel wheels with hard rubber mounted on them. Fred said, “You can have that old wagon, but you have to restore some of my other engines for me.” I told Fred he had a deal. I hooked my jeep up to the old wagon that very night and towed it home. Trevor Ballard, Fred’s grandson, followed me down the road in his pickup, smiling all the while. That weekend I sandblasted the wagon and painted it IHC red, the original color. It came out real nice! I also sandblasted Fred’s engines and had them ready for painting.
Once I had the main frame section finished and mounted on the wagon, it was time to start drilling the wood for mounting the engine and drill section. But I also needed a water pump to complete the restoration. I knew to look for a Myers bulldozer piston pump, because I had some pieces of the original.
I got lucky on that find while at a wedding with Beth, a dear friend of mine. She had invited me three hours north to Perkinsville, N.Y. While driving around the beautiful countryside, we stopped at a tag sale at a farmhouse in Ark Port, N.Y. An older woman was sitting out by a barn that had old clothes and toys for sale. I asked her if she happened to have any of them old hit-and-miss gas engines. She said she’d have to get her husband. When she returned with Charlie, he said he thought he had one in the other barn. And there in the loft was a 1-1/2 HP Stover gas engine. What a find! When I offered him $25 for it, he said, “Nope, gotta get $50 for it.” I said OK.
Then looking around a bit, I found the pump to complete my old drill rig. I couldn’t believe it! It was just the double-pulley type I needed. So I said to Charlie, “Do you wanna sell that old pump too?” “Sure,” he replied. “Will you take $25 for it?” “Nope,” Charlie said, “I gotta get $50 for it.” I said, “You’re a $50 man today, aren’t you?” He laughed and said, “Yup!” Charlie’s sons helped us get the engine out of the barn and into the back seat of Beth’s brand-new Audi. It took some sweet-talking to get Beth to let me do that, but she did. She’s a good woman. Thanks, Beth! Back home, more sandblasting and painting, and the pump was ready for the old well-drilling machine.
Now that the main section was complete, I had to make the wooden derrick. I had only small pieces of the old one to go by, but I knew how long it had to be to drill 26 feet. I needed a long, straight tree for this. I researched mast building on the computer and e-mailed boat builders who told me to use spruce wood because it’s light and strong. I knew white oak would be way too heavy for this use because the derrick gets cranked up in the air by hand with a crank handle (which I also had to make). Fred remembered Lester cranking it up way back when.
My friend Gunner told me that his grandfather had told him when he was a boy that they used to make ladders out of spruce. He also said he had spruce trees out in the back of his place that his grandfather had planted and I was welcome to one. The trees were as straight as a gun barrel and as tall as I needed. Gunner cut one down. I measured 28 feet, cut it to length and Gunner loaded it on my trailer with a Kawasaki fork loader. Up to my brother’s mill it went. He was away the weekend I wanted to mill out the timbers, but another friend of mine, Jeremy Gamache, who knew how to run the mill, helped me out. What a big help!
Back in my garage, I laid the timbers out on the floor so I could cut the notches for the cross members and bolt them in place. I knew how far apart they had to be because I had pieces of the original derrick that were still intact.
Now, I needed long square-headed bolts. I called around, and the prices for bolts of that length and size (the derrick beams are 3-by-8-inch-by-26-foot) are out of sight, but I got lucky again. Another friend of mine, Bill Blessey, who knew and respected Lester, had pails of 5/8-by-10-inch square-headed bolts, which he said I was free to have.
Then the work began. I drilled and bolted in two white oak cross members, and squeezed the top part of the derrick together a little bit each day. I would do that again the following day while the wood was still green. I drilled and bolted more cross members as I worked my way up the derrick until I had the correct fit up top for the two sheaves, one for the drill line the other for bailing the well out. With the sheaves mounted, the derrick was complete except for sanding and applying linseed oil, which took several days. People who stopped by and saw the derrick laid out on the floor said it looked like a boat, and it did.
Now it was time to pick up the heavy derrick, place it on top of the drill and insert the main support shaft that holds it in place and acts as a pivot to raise the derrick. To do this I backed one of our service trucks into the garage and hoisted the derrick up with the crane. Lowered into position, it fit like a glove. Finally, the big day – time to take the derrick outside, spool manila hemp rope on the winches and raise that big derrick. Fred’s grandson Trevor was there to give a helping hand, as were a couple of friends and nephews. I cranked the derrick into position with ease, just as old Lester and Desmond did back in the days when the machine was making money.
It was a great day to see the old well machine running again after all my hard work and the countless hours I put into it. I don’t know how many hours or days, but it took me two years, working every other weekend and certain nights during the week. This actually gave me wonderful time with my daughters, Cassie and Alyson, who love those old engines almost as much as I do.
I want to thank the Ballard family, especially Fred and Trevor; Lester’s granddaughter, Rebecca; Sonny and Maxine Davis; and the Beal family for all the photos that made the restoration possible. I also want to thank my brothers, the many friends that gave a hand when needed and Frank Oveis.
Lester’s core drilling well machine can be seen on display at the Sloane-Stanley Museum in Kent, Conn., and at the New England Well Expo in Marlborough, Mass., March 23-24, 2007.
Contact Jeff Hyatt at: P.O. Box 718, Patterson, NY 12563; firstname.lastname@example.org