St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Well Driller's Manual

Margo is headed back to Mayo for a followup appointment on her back surgery.  She thinks it is successful, as she doesn't have the leg pain.  The pain from the surgery is going away gradually and she is beginning to walk around without a walker, sometimes with a cane and sometimes without!   So we expect the surgeon to look at the scar and say things are healing fine and remind her to not lift or bend much yet, but to get into an exercise program including walking.  Another success from the Mayo Clinic!

After several days of 30s and 40s the snow all melted and things looked almost like March around the farm.  However, Sunday night it cooled down and an inch or so of new snow covered everything--making it white again. As it is not enough to bother getting around the woods or fields, there is no excuse for not getting at some of the outdoor fixes here on the farm, and maybe cutting some of the dead fenceline elms into firewood.   Always can use more for sap cooking.  

After cleaning the basement, I got sort of sick for a couple days -- probably all the dirt, dust, mouse manure, cobwebs I breathed in.  Next time will try a face mask on a job like this.  I catch about one mouse or vole each week in the basement, mostly in glue traps.  Assume there is an unlimited supply outdoors that migrate in through all the old house cracks.  

The farm has a lot of buildings and space.  Mom and Dad got rid of their cattle in the late 1980s and after that,  it seemed every building got filled with the leftovers from neighbors and relatives stuff they asked to "store" in the buildings or passed along.  Old pieces of wood paneling; plastic dishes, stoves, heaters, bolts, nails, beds, furniture, mattresses, and pretty much anything you can imagine.   I suppose I should just get a dumpster and dump it, but feel obligated to sort through and separate out anything recyclable, usable, or potentially usable.   Does one  really need two big old fanning mills?  Does one need an extra pumpjack for parts?  How about a sawdust blower from grandpa's saw mill?   Bulky and probably at least 50 and maybe 100 years old.   Speaking of pump jacks got me thinking about farm water systems.  So stand back and get saturated with the farm well. 

Taking advantage of the warm weather, I did the monthly water well maintenance:  check the belt is tight, oil and grease the bearings, add air pressure to the water tank (has a slow leak) and screw in the winter light bulbs so the small building won't freeze up.  It is a clunky system, but has been working with few problems for the past 60 years (with various replacement of parts, motors and pipes, etc.)   However, it worries me.  

 The next big repair on the farm -- probably next summer-- is the water well and system.   The original farmer here, Ole Nelson, who came in the 1880s had a hand dug open well -- about 90 feet deep and probably 3-4 feet in diameter.   

In the old days, you hired someone like neighbor John Penny to dig a well (or did it yourself).  You took a pick, shovel and windlass with bucket and hand chipped your way through the red clay making a hole big enough to work in.  As you dug down, a wooden square frame slid down the hole, being added to at the top -- to keep the dirt from caving in (although on the very deep clay layer here, that probably wasn't needed.  Eventually you got below that into wet sandy gravel--the water table and you dug some say into that cribbing it up with rocks to keep the sand back.  The windlass was kept--to pull up a wooden bucket with water.  Most folks built a foundation a couple of feet higher at the top to keep out surface drainage and added a roof over the open well.  

Sometimes a second rope was added to the windlass to hold a

bucket of items in need of refrigeration to be lowered into the well in the hot days of summer.  Down the well, the temperature was about 50, so cream, butter, meat and other food lasted a few days longer in the cool damp well. 

Sometime in the early 1900s (or maybe even earlier), the well was changed.  A 4 inch metal pipe casing 90 feet long was lowered to the bottom of the well, and the dirt filled in around it.  Open wells were unsanitary with frogs, mice, dirt, etc falling down into the water.  Nelson mechanized the farm by adding a windmill tower and blade on a 30 foot metal frame above the new casing.   Inside the casing, a well point, pumping cylinder connected to a 90 foot well rod and 90 feet of 1 1/4 inch pipe was lowered down the casing. 

At the top, a well pump with handle was screwed onto the pipe and the well rod hooked to the handle.  Moving the handle, moved the well rod up and down and inside the cylinder, a piston moved up and down, activating some flapper valves to bring water to the surface and out the pump spout.  

The windmill blade had a set of gears that turned with the wind and changed rotary motion to up and down motion that ran the well rod and automated pumping water.  

Wind power was pretty good, but some times the wind didn't blow, so the windmill was replaced by a gas engine pump sometime -- probably in the early 1930s.  The Worth School (out in West Sterling -- on Trade River) closed about 1932.  John Nelson bought the old wood shed and moved it to the farm to put over the well and as a storage building and milk house and engine house for the pump.   He also used it for keeping the moonshine cool in the tank where he put his milk cans and pumped cold water on them.  

When Dad moved in, he put overhead pipes to gravity tanks in the upstairs of the house and barn for water to the cows -- with water cups and for the sink in the house.  

Well, to get back to the well, in the dry 1930s, the well went dry too--couldn't pump enough water for farm needs.   Axel Bergstrom (I think), the local well man, came out and pulled the pipes up.  The casing had no perforations in the bottom and no point on it, so the only water that came in came through the bottom of the pipe -- 4 inch opening.  He put a well point (3 feet of perforated pipe with a point on the end) screwed to pumping cylinder (a home made one that was strong enough to drive) and then the connected the 90 feet of pipes and well rod.  When he got it above ground, he drove the point on the end another 8 feet down beyond the casing so it would give a much bigger area to draw water from.  That solved the problem and ever since, Dad followed that strategy when replacing the well (every 10-20 years the pipes rust, the cylinder fails or the well rod wears a hole from rubbing or something goes wrong).  

In the 1960s, Dad replaced the gravity system with a "pressure system" with a 30 gallon tank at the well that the pump jack raised to 40 lbs of water pressure and sent directly into the pipes in the barn and house rather than to the gravity tanks.  

I plan to pull the 90 feet of pipes, cylinder, rod and point this summer.  When we used to pull it ourselves, the first 8 feet had to be pulled with a couple of jacks to "undrive" the point out of the gravel.  Then we pulled it by 10 foot lengths and unscrewed each as it came up until all was out.  Then we replaced everything and put it all back down. 

This time I want to use plastic tubing with an electrical wire and rope connected to a submersible pump at the bottom to simplify things.  The question is whether there will be enough water seep into the end of the casing to make this work or not.   Otherwise I may have to have some kind of addition put on the end of the casing to go deeper and let more water in.  

What are the tools and supplies used in old well systems?

   -- the well pipe dog -- a device to keep the pipe from dropping into the well as you let the pipe down, stopped to add screw on more pipe and then lower it again.  Marv has one in his museum, so I need to take a photo of it -- Dad used it.

    -- Pipe wrenches of the modern type and a sort of special pipe wrench called a pipe tong, which I have to find in the garage and take a photo.  It had handles and a set screw that locked it onto a pipe I think.  Maybe in Marv's museum too. 

   --pipe cutter

   --pipe threader

   -- pipe fittings (note that driveable pipe couplings were needed on the well when it was driven down). 

   --neighbor Glenn Lucken worked on wells too.  When you dropped a pipe down the well accidentally, he had a special tool to recapture it.  I think it was a tapered solid point that you fished down the well and tried to get it into the dropped pipe opening and then twisted it and it's tapered threads let it grip the lost pipe and retrieve it.  I think my brother Ev might remember this -- will see if he knows.  I don't think we ever dropped a pipe--we were paranoid about clamping things onto it to keep it from falling.  When you have a point, cylinder, 80 feet of pipe and rod, it gets pretty heavy!


For shallow wells, you can use a pitcher pump that "sucks" the water up to 25 feet.  I use one at the cabin -- lakeside when my regular water system fails.  Just hook it on a pipe driven into the spring. 

The hand pump system that used to be on our well.  The flat rod at the top was hooked to the windmill and later to a pump jack to mechanically pump the handle. 

Inside the pipe is a rod that connects to the cylinder at the bottom where the pumping actually takes place.  On the handle up position, the rod goes down, a foot valve opens and lets water into the cylinder.  Pushing down the handle closes the valve and the leathers in the cylinder move the water upwards.  A tiny hole in the pipe about 6 feet below ground lets water in the pipe drop to that level when not in use so it won't freeze in winter. The rod sometimes rubs against the pipe and wears a hole in it.  The leathers in the cylinder wear out.  The pipe rusts.  The rod may wear thin and break.  However, repairs are usually good for 10 years or so.  

All sorts of tools are used to grab the pipe tightly so you can turn new sections on or hold it from dropping down the well.  Tongs

What I need on the bottom of the farm well is some perforations in the casing
To clean mud out of of a well

To bucket sand out of the bottom of a well--neighbor Raymond Noyes had his well cleaned with something like this. 

A somewhat older version of a well drilling machine

The bottom of my well has the casing with no holes or point

An old style pump jack with open gears.  Mine is modern with enclosed, oil bathed gears.  Turns rotary motion to up and down pump handle motion.

Graphite well/pump sealer

Well point -- at the bottom of the Hanson farm well driven into the gravel about 8 feet.