Doug Wilson will practically travel to the ends of the earth for an old-iron relic once commonly found on every farm in America: the lowly well pump. This ubiquitous farm convenience was essential to every family’s livelihood before the emergence of modern plumbing. Pumps aren’t worth too much to many people these days, but the Grimes, Iowa, resident begs to differ.
Doug often locates pumps at auctions, antique stores, dusty barns and over-grown fencerows where most were abandoned long ago. Yet, he occasionally finds them in the oddest places. He once spied a 1920s-era A.Y. McDonald Co. pump in the bed of a pickup at a fast food restaurant. ‘The owner was in the drive-thru waiting his turn to get his burger and fries,’ Doug recalls. ‘I came up to his window and told him I collected pumps after I noticed he had one in the back. So we got to talking, and he told me he’d sell it for $25 on the spot. So I said, ‘Sold!”
The search for well pumps usually takes Doug on rural highways and dirt roads of Iowa and beyond, where he hopes to catch a glimpse of one sticking out of the bushes or in old barns that might house a batch of scrap iron. ‘I drive thousands of miles looking for rusty iron – it’s a terrible addiction,’ Doug admits. ‘After I discover something, it’s not uncommon for me and a friend to stop at the farm house and knock on the door to talk with the owner. Even if he doesn’t think he has anything, he still might have some old stuff stored in a shed he forgot about… We hoard them when we find them.’
After 16 years of collecting, Doug has about 150 pumps, but says he’s owned in excess of 300 in the past. His prolific pump assortment may seem large to most people, but Doug takes his collection with a grain of salt. The amount of pumps isn’t important, Doug says, it’s all about the hunt. That nonchalant attitude about his amassed collection may stem from his earliest childhood memories of water pumps in Van Meter, Iowa.
‘We didn’t have any pumps on our farm at all, but relatives and neighbors did, and pumps were always a keen interest any time we kids were able to visit them,’ Doug remembers. ‘We, of course, were only interested in playing in the water. As long as the arm pumped water, I was happy. I didn’t care how it worked, it just mattered that it pumped water.’
From those early influences on his relatives’ farms, Doug’s understanding of water pumps and their sales catalogs is now a deep well of knowledge.
Pumps generally came in four different designs, he says. The earliest pumps were hand-pumped only. For each stroke of the lever, a gush of water flowed from the spout.
More-efficient pumps found their way to the farm in the form of the double-cylinders (the cylinder extends into a well and sucks water to the surface), the windmill pump and the force pump. The double-cylinder pump was hand-operated, but one cylinder reloaded while the other emptied out, creating an oscillating flow of water that doubled the production with the same effort expended. The windmill pump freed the farmer from such strenuous work completely, relying instead on the constant breeze across the open land for power. A force pump was used when farmers had to elevate the water stream to a remote location by creating pressure in the cylinder. A sucker rod and packing gland was built in the cylinder, which created the pressure needed to sufficiently expel the water.
Among the various pump types, many different brands, styles and degrees of quality existed, Doug says. Ornate cylinders were lined with porcelain and brass, while standard cylinders were cast iron. Most had leather cups to seal the cylinders, which prevented leakage. The reason for different materials, Doug says, was because some people unjustly feared that drinking from cast iron wasn’t healthy.
Almost all pumps are collectible, and any brand is good, Doug says, but like many old-iron collectors, he prefers the strange stuff. ‘If you look at my pumps, you’ll notice I like the cut-out letters or the pumps with the wide, ornate bases that strengthened the pump, and I also like the ones with a pump jack attachment,’ he says. A pumpjack attaches to an engine or other device to power the pump. ‘There’s also cistern pumps, which are another subculture altogether,’ Doug adds. ‘These pumps would run from the cistern all the way to the kitchen.’
Among Doug’s favorite brands are Aermotor Co., Fairbanks, Morse & Co. and Enterprise Wind Mill Co. These companies often produced pumps in beautiful and odd designs, but they’re difficult to locate.
Doug’s search for unusual brands of pumps takes some wild and unexpected turns, many times revealing obscure, unknown brands. No comprehensive study of well pump manufacturers exists largely due to the vast number of small-scale pump manufacturers. ‘The whole deal is that the pump manufacturers were very regional,’ Doug says. ‘For instance, here in Iowa, the regional pump manufacturers were Dempster Mfg. Co., Red Jacket Mfg. Co. and A.Y. McDonald Co., to name a few. You search around this area, and that’s the majority of what you find. Now, if you look in some neighboring states, you’ll likely find other brands.’
Small, local companies often gained a good foothold on the local market by selling a wide array of pumps before larger firms moved into town. ‘For instance, Meyers put out a horrendous amount of styles – hundreds of combinations of pump parts,’ Doug says. Bigger companies like Deere & Co. and International Harvester Co. couldn’t compete with that local coverage. Instead, they produced accessories like pumpjacks and water-well pumping engines.
‘The large amount of these small companies makes it particularly hard to research with any sort of success because, in many cases, they were only around for a short time,’ Doug explains. ‘If they were in business for five years and were small, it’s going to be hard for me to research them. It takes money to make money, and often these smaller companies didn’t have enough to stay in business for long or to promote themselves.’
Promotional materials do exist, however. Doug owns about 30 catalogs of assorted brands that range from brochures and pamphlets to hard-covered or cloth-covered catalogs. Among the most-common catalogs was F.E. Meyers Mfg. Co. of Ashland, Ohio, which also produced a variety of farm items including hay carriers. ‘They put out three to five catalogs each year, and some later ones were in color about 1920,’ Doug says. ‘Red Jacket pump catalogs were a little unusual, too, because they’re named after an Indian chief. The picture of him is on the front cover. His name was Sa-go-ye-wat-ha.’ Doug doesn’t collect the catalogs for show as much as he collects them for inspiration. ‘To tell the truth, I just like to read them and dream about seeing these very strange pumps,’ he admits. ‘It really makes you want to find one.’
Once Doug finds a rare well pump, he sometimes restores it. While restoration isn’t as time consuming as it is for other antiques, he occasionally has broken cast-iron pieces forged at a foundry. Sometimes Doug does the work himself. ‘The pump might have a broken top, so I’ll have to weld it down, grind it, then shape it back together so it looks like it hadn’t been repaired,’ he says.
Doug occasionally paints pumps the correct company colors if he knows them, although sometimes he must make an educated guess about what those colors might be. ‘Some of my pumps may be a little snazzier than the original colors,’ he admits. ‘If I didn’t know the original colors, I just paint it whatever I feel like.’
Regardless of how he dresses the pumps, Doug’s hobby suits him ‘well.’ For Doug, the satisfaction from his collection comes more from the hunt rather than the number of pumps he owns. And why should he be concerned with numbers? The hobby isn’t a hot topic among old-iron collectors, well pumps have only a small network of collectors, and Doug doesn’t care to show off his collection at farm shows, he says.
Actually, Doug’s worried that some day pumps will become super-collectible and prices will rise. Until that day, he’ll drive the highways past farms and pastures, sniffing out that next unique well pump cast away in the barn on the back 40. ‘The fun is definitely in the search,’ Doug says with a smile. ‘Having them in the barn is fun too, but the search is what it’s all about.’
For more information about Doug’s well pump collection, contact him at 13423 N.W. 82nd Ave., Grimes, IA 50111; (515) 986-4458; e-mail: email@example.com