Drilling into Local History with a Water Well Drill

Wyoming collector rebuilds and restores water well drill dating back to the 1870s.

1870s cable-tool drill

This 1870s-vintage cable-tool drill with 15-foot derrick can reach depths of 300 feet. Larry spent eight months rebuilding and restoring the rig. "When I first saw it in a woodpile," he says, "it was about to be scrapped."

Photo courtesy Larry Fulton

Content Tools

Following the death of a lifelong collector in Wyoming, the executor of the man’s estate faced an enormous challenge: cleanup of property groaning under the weight of old iron. Fortunately, he knew enough to alert local collectors. But they had to beat the scrap man to the scene.

Larry Fulton, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was one of those who paid a visit. “Our tractor club – the Centennial Antique Tractor & Engine Club in Cheyenne – rescued five tractors,” he says. Larry also got a pair: a 1936 Oliver Hart-Parr 70 row-crop and a 1930 Cletrac Model W equipped with a 1932 Ford flathead V-8 engine.  “I had to drag them onto the trailer,” he recalls, “as they had not moved in 20 years.”

While looking through the rest of the hoard, Larry saw remnants of a machine in the middle of what appeared to be largely rotten wood. Larry studied the pile on four different occasions before he was able to identify it as a water well drill mounted on a wagon.

“Most of the wood had rotted away and the derrick was gone,” he says. Retrieving it was a major operation. “I had a high school kid helping me,” he says. “We worked with a skid-steer all morning and half of the afternoon, and then we had to cut out a tree.”

Built just after the Civil War

Raised in the oil patches of Wyoming, Larry has a keen interest in the rig, which he’s since dated to the 1870s. A cable-tool drill, the rig used rope to suspend wooden rods and drilling tools. According to an article by the Petroleum History Institute, rope pulled the string of tools up and down as brought about by a spring pole or walking beam at the surface. The heavy bit had a blunt chisel end that cracked, chipped and smashed rock through repeated blows delivered in a measured or regular cadence. Power would have been provided by a horse power or a steam engine.

Larry believes the rig was built by Kelly & Tannyhill Co., based in Iowa, immediately after the end of America’s Civil War. “It’s not easy to find information on a water well drill that old,” he says. “I’ve seen pictures of a drill from that era, but with the derrick gone, I was just working off my imagination. But I’m a driller: Once I figured out what it was, I knew how it worked.”

Using pine, he replaced all of the rig’s wood and painted it white. In the process, he found a brass tag bearing the name of a Denver secondhand equipment dealer. “The Union Pacific ran to Cheyenne in 1867,” he says. “They could have shipped it on the railroad from Iowa to Denver, and then to Cheyenne.”

 The drum on the rig holds 300 feet of 1-1/2-inch rope. By 1880, the manufacturer upgraded the drill, installing two drums on the rig. Ten years later, the 15-foot derrick was extended to a height of 28 feet.

The wagon supporting the rig appears to be an Olds, Larry says, manufactured by Olds Wagon Works, Ft. Wayne, Indiana. As found, the wagon was on steel wheels, but in the process of restoration, Larry realized that those were a modification. “When it was new, it would have had wooden-spoke wheels,” he says.

Last used in the 1920s

The deceased collector worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, but he had a sideline drilling water wells. On his property, Larry saw five water well drills, including three that were homemade. “There was a big one on a 1928 International,” he recalls, “and I really wanted that one, but it was just too big.” The property was littered with special tools for use with water well drills. “I looked for tools for well drills that had 15-foot derricks,” he says. “All told, I probably spent a week up there looking at his stuff. And the whole time I was there, the iron man was there too, cutting things up.”

The water well drill is his current favorite parade entry. “Some of the people who see it remember seeing cable rigs in action,” he says. The drill was likely last used in the 1920s. “They might have cut the derrick off and used it under a windmill to pull pipe,” he says. “But after the 1920s, even that would have been considered pretty slow going.”

Larry worked on the drill for eight months. During that time, the drill was his only project. “A good friend of mine suggested working on just one thing at a time,” he says. “He would finish about six projects and in the same time, I hadn’t finished anything. So I took his advice and I finished the drill.” Since then, he’s returned to multitasking. “I have about three things going at once now,” he sheepishly admits.

Maintaining perspective on a hobby

Raised outside of Casper, Wyoming, Larry did not grow up on a farm. But as a teenager, he baled hay for a local farmer, and he spent lots of time with friends from ranch families. Other hobbies – hunting and fishing – have given him unique access to old iron hunting grounds.

Retired since 1996, Larry enjoys his hobby immensely, but he never forgets his priorities. First, he keeps it simple. He’s not interested in looking all over for parts and pieces. “My thrill is in getting a complete tractor and getting it running again,” he says. “If somebody tells me about an old tractor, and it’s complete, I’ll take it.”

Second, he maintains perspective. “If it’s given to me, or if it’s cheap, I’m interested,” he says. “But I’m not out looking for tractors or engines.” Often, he says, people come to him with an old piece of machinery, hoping to find a good home for it. When he finishes and shows pieces that were given to him, he includes the previous owner’s name in the signage. “I like to give them a little recognition,” he says. “Somebody had to buy it new in the first place.” FC

For more information:

— Larry Fulton, 4504 E. 17th St., Cheyenne, WY 82001; (307) 631-1398; email: lhfulton@msn.com.

Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector magazine. Email her at lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.