Moments away from being cut into scrap, the 1928 Greene and Greene spudding rig lay on its side on top of a 15-foot pile of junk. Jim Mitchell, Bartlesville, Okla., had trouble believing that this twisted piece of equipment was the rig that had once drilled on his grandfather’s land.
The old rig had a fascinating history. Built in 1928 by two brothers who had broken away from a Wichita Falls rig manufacturing company, the rig was a prototype, their first and only known existing one. When the stock market crashed, the Greene brothers went broke.
Jim, whose father and grandfather worked in the oil business in the heyday of the independent oil producer, had always been interested in antique oilfield equipment. Previously, he had collected his father’s old K-type Star spudder (a “spudding” rig literally pounds away at the earth until the hole is drilled. The bit turns on every strike so the surface area is hit at different points), some Oklahoma rod-line jacks, an old powerhouse and other remnants of this bygone era.
Then Luke Herard of Caney, Kan., told him of an old rig at a salvage yard. From the description, Jim surmised that it might, in fact, be the Greene and Greene rig bought by W.D. Coldren in 1954. The Coldren brothers (W.D. and Charlie) had drilled most of Mitchell’s grandfather’s wells, and at least 40 others. As a boy, Jim had spent many hours on the rig floor listening to the ‘music’ of this drilling rig, watching the Coldrens and his grandfather “sniffing” for oil, and hearing them tell of their experiences. Jim inherited his knowledge of drilling from men who had the patience to teach a small boy the art of drilling and “fishing” for tools lost down-hole. The Coldrens, Madison Campbell, James “Big Jim” Larmore, Jim’s grandfather (O.A. Mitchell), all now deceased, and many other independents loaned each other equipment without charge, and advice without criticism.
The rig was in sad shape. Many parts had been cannibalized. No drilling engine. Twisted beams. One-half of the axle had snapped off, and all the tires had disappeared. The crown sheave and the spring under it were missing. Existing shafts were twisted and bent. The pins that held the telescoping mast in place had disappeared. All the clutches and brakes on the draw works were frozen. The crown sheave travelling framework was gone and had to be rebuilt from scratch. In short, the rig was a disaster.
Determined that it could somehow be saved, Jim made a swap with the salvage yard. That was the first of many horse trades, and the beginning of two long years of repair and welding.
Jim’s first problem was building a new axle. By cutting a truck axle in two and extending it three feet, he created a new one. D&L 66 in Nowata found tires that would work. When Jim’s winch truck failed, Carl Morrison, also a third generation oil producer, loaned him his truck so he could take the project home.
What to do first? The task appeared monumental. From his memory and pictures his grandmother had taken, Jim formed an idea of the original configuration of the rig. He started by welding the parts that were easy and cheap to fix. Many of the minor parts he salvaged from old rigs his father, Douglas V. Mitchell, had owned.
Numerous items had to be made, since replacement parts were impossible to find. The turnbuckles came from Oklahoma rod-line jacks that had belonged to Jim’s grandfather. The crown sheave from a Keystone spudder (circa 1905) replaced the one on the rig. Jim created a chain hoist boom from an old polished rod and two-inch pipe. The spudding guide was fabricated from an antique Leidecker-style pipe elevator. The drilling engine sheave for the long V belts used to drive the bandwheel came from a junkyard.
Jim replaced the broken drive chains and freed the frozen clutch linkages by soaking them in crude oil. He welded more handles on the mast for easier access to the pole, and replaced the pins that held the telescoping mast. A lever to operate the casing line jaw clutch came next, so he didn’t have to reach in through the drawworks to engage or disengage it (Many of the drillers he’d known as a child had lost at least one finger to “pinch points” on their rigs.). Jim used channel iron to strengthen the mast. And always he welded: The rig had more cracks than he cared to count. Finally, the time came when he thought the rig was in good shape. But he needed the rest of the tools to get it in running order.
Since the drilling engine had been stripped, Jim purchased a 1950-era Oliver tractor engine that fit his specifications, but, like everything else on the rig, the engine needed some machine work. Jensen Ford Tractor in Bartlesville was willing to take on the project, along with an unusual clutch problem. Jim also converted the engine to handle propane or natural gas.
Jim built a drilling rig floor from an old redwood oil tank that the Coldrens had owned. Many of the drilling tools (i.e., bits, drill stem, rope socket) were tools his father had used on his K-type rig. He traded a drilling bit for a swivel rope socket. Fred Miller, a well puller from Nowata, gave him some babbit for the stinger in the rope socket, and provided a sinker bar and 12-inch bit. The circle-track and jack, used to tighten the rope socket onto the drill stem and the drill stem onto the bit, Jim purchased from the estate of Madison Campbell, a driller he’d known as a child. In Bartlesville, Mark and Robert Kane gave him the doghouse that had belonged to the Coldrens. (This is not a home for Fido: In drilling parlance, a doghouse is a toolhouse where the driller keeps his tools – shop hammers, screw drivers, grease gun, etc. Most doghouses also had some type of heat source so the driller could get in out of the weather. The driller also keeps a log of the well or a tally board, noting formations and their depths.).
The dump box for the drilling cuttings was made from an old boiler tube. The forge and anvil, used to sharpen the bits, were donated by his father. The guy lines to hold the mast firmly in place were fabricated from excess sand line off the rig. Jim figured that the sand line and the drill lines had to be at least 30 years old, but unlike the rest of the rig, they had been carefully preserved: They were well-oiled, and wrapped in sheets of barn tin.
Nowata Keystone Pipe and Supply ordered cable clamps, various belts and miscellaneous parts. M&E Pump and Equipment found the long belts needed to run the band wheel. K.C. Machine and Welding took on the massive task of repairing the crown and drive sheaves. In short, Jim received help from almost all of the oilfield people left in the Nowata-Bartlesville area.
Finally, in 1999, a few days before Thanksgiving, Jim tested the rig by drilling a water well for Fred W. Thompson on his Nowata farm. On that particular day, everyone on the rig floor held their breath. Any rig is a dangerous place, and one that has not run in more than 30 years is even more so. The engine started. The walking beam raised and lowered. The rope socket swiveled the stem as the bit pounded into the earth. The spudding guide kept the drill stem from swaying, and the crown sheave assembly held together. The old rig was again alive and drilling! In the end, the project had come to mean more than just a restoration of vintage equipment.
“The rig represents not only the glory days of the cable tool rig and the old drillers who risked their lives to drill for Oklahoma’s black gold,’ Jim said, ‘but the spirit of cooperation that is still alive in the oilfields of eastern Oklahoma.” FC
Linda K. Randolph has been a teacher for 29 years. Although she has extensive experience as a tool pusher on a K-type rig, she currently spends her summer holiday from the classroom as a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Oklahoma.