Farm Collector

Keystone Driller Direct Link to the Past

The steam-powered drilling rig was a once-common sight in rural America, as farmsteads sprouted in remote areas. Today’s water wells, though, are drilled with modern equipment. But a carefully restored relic in Wisconsin recalls a different era. 

“We were just lucky enough that it wasn’t scrapped,” said William J. “Bill” Smith, Baraboo, Wis., as he considered his Keystone Driller.

In the early ’80s, Bill took a look at what was by then “just a pile of iron,” and decided to restore the driller.

“The wood frame was rotted down, and the iron was so badly worn that we had to rebuild all of it,” he said. “There were a few small parts we had to recast.”

The original frame, he said, was probably built of red fir. But he used oak timbers for the restoration. The gleaming brass gauge reads “Keystone Driller Company.”

“I was lucky enough to have a gauge that read ‘Keystone’ on it,” he said. A friend gave him another, for a backup. Finally, it was time to paint the frame, and a wagon that hauled supplies. Bill had a copy of an old catalog promoting the rig, and the painter was enthusiastic.

“I was told that a lot of that machinery that was on display, or shown in the catalogs, was really painted up fancy,” he said. “And that’s what happened. But I thought the painting was overdone. I think it looks like a circus wagon.”

The restoration was a mammoth undertaking. For Bill, it was also a labor of love: the rig was a direct link to the early years of what has become a fourth-generation family business Smith Well Drilling.

“My granddad and dad bought it, used, years ago,” he said. “We don’t know its exact age… I call it approximately a 1903.” That model was made for about 30 years, he said.

The Keystone Driller was typical of many that were used in Wisconsin at the turn of the century, drilling test holes for iron mining operations. After that business peaked, Bill’s grandfather purchased two or three of the rigs. The 8 hp steam engine was self-propelled, and burnt either coal or wood. The deepest well drilled with it was 430 feet.

“It was capable of going at least that far,” Bill said. “It was company rated to 500 feet.”

The rig was retired in the fall of ’41. More than half a century passed before it was revived.

“I worked on it at nights, mostly in the winter, with my son (the fourth generation in the family business),” Bill said. “It took 13 years.”

Finally, about two years ago, the restoration was complete, and the rig was in working order again. Despite the passage of time, operating it was no particular trick.

“When I was a kid, I went with my dad in the summers,” Bill recalled. “I was around steam engines a lot back then, so I knew how to operate it. I just grew up with it.”

Today, he shares that interest with those who attend the annual Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club Show at Baraboo. A member of the club nearly since its founding, he exhibits the rig only at that show. “I keep it strictly local,” he said.

He also exhibits a Rumely at that show. It’s in running order, but otherwise unrestored.

“It looks just like when it was in use,” he said. “Dirty and rusty.” FC

  • Published on Oct 1, 1998
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