Old Time Well Drilling


(This 1033rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 9, 2011.)


The Hoekstra Well Driller


Arthur Hoekstra of Clarence is a retired chemical engineer who, among other things, holds the patent on an engineering process related to the chemical production of sulfuric acid, an industrial chemical with a wide range of uses. Recently Hoekstra has been circulating accounts of his early experiences in Wisconsin, many of which I have found both charming and enlightening. With his permission I share one of those accounts:

    "We survived the depression because my father had developed the skill of well drilling. He had bought a used water well drilling machine called a spudder. There was a drill bar twenty feet long by four inches in diameter that was lifted by a heavy, three-inch diameter rope. The machine lifted the drill bar and dropped it several feet repeatedly. It could penetrate any soil and even solid rock.

    "My father was well known for his well drilling skills and he was the best in our area. He taught me how to do this work and I think he was disappointed that instead I went to college. However at that time, I only weighed 125 pounds and this was too heavy work for me on my own.

    "Operating the driller took special skill and my father could tell how the drill was working by the vibrations in the rope. Drilling was stopped at the solid rock, which he called the ledge because ground water would collect there.


"In our area of Wisconsin, glaciers had deposited gravel, stones and boulders so the drill could veer off a boulder at an angle causing a crooked well. When my father detected such a boulder, he would stop drilling, lift up the well casing (no easy task) and lower dynamite next to the rock. By accurate measurements we placed the dynamite next to the correct depth.  Electric caps then set off the charge. We stood aside, because the air was filled with water, dirt and rocks from the blast. I marvel to remember how wonderful and safe dynamite was.


"This story would not be complete unless I relate a common notion at that time, which was that water sources could be found by "water witching". As nearly as I can describe this odd process, a person would hold a forked stick, usually willow, in two hands and stressed by the wrists so the fork was extended on the horizontal plane. The person would walk around and when the forked dipped forcefully, it indicated water below. My father taught me how to do this.

    "My father was sometimes asked to water witch and he pretended to oblige. However, he would survey the land and he understood the geology by the terrain. A common criterion is to judge the underground limestone ledge, which in western New York is called the Niagara layer. It starts in Niagara Falls and even goes under Lake Michigan. All the layers of historic rock can be seen in the gorge below Niagara Falls.

    "Previous glaciers never scraped below the rock ledge and as they melted, they deposited rocks and sand. Groundwater accumulates on top of this ledge and, although it ultimately goes to the sea, it is often stored there. Pressure from the weight of the surrounding rocks often produces an artesian well of great force.

   "My father always guaranteed water and, when located, it would be near the house or barn. Once a farmer's wife insisted that my father be consulted because an earlier water witcher had proposed a well about 200 feet from the house and she would have to carry the water. His well produced water right next to the house. The farmer's wife was thrilled so my father's reputation soared. He was called on to repair many wells that previous drillers had fouled up and I went along when not in school. I still think back and admire my father's talent to do so many things, which were inventive and unique.

    "This talent enabled him to save some money and when the depression hit, we were able to keep going when most farmers lost their land, buildings, and everything. My life growing up was not only sheltered from despair but filled with adventure and learning.-- Gerry Rising"