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Drilling skills carried family through Depression

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. 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 20 feet long by 4 inches in diameter that was lifted by a heavy, 3-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.

"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.

"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."

e-mail: insrisg@buffalo.edu

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