Resurrection of an 1890s Core Drilling Machine

One man and many friends bring a piece of history back to life

| April / May 2007

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.

Bringing history home

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!’”