A visit with a water well drilling contractor in central Wisconsin.

Back in late spring, I accompanied a friend of mine for the season opening of his lake house in central Wisconsin – about a six-hour drive. We arrived around midnight, and by the time we got everything unpacked and the utilities hooked up, it was about 2:30 a.m. The last thing we did before turning in was walk down to the boathouse to see if the pier had been installed by the local service – it hadn’t.

Later that morning (but not later enough), I was startled out of my inadequate slumber by a rather harsh bang. My first thought was that the pier people had arrived and were working on their installation. Then I heard another bang, then another, and another. “Hey, wait a second,” I said to myself. “I recognize that sound – that’s a cable-tool rig going at it.” So I rubbed what little sleep I had in my eyes, walked out the door and met Buck Willmarth, owner of Willmarth Well Drilling, Holcombe, Wis.

I learned that the neighboring house is undergoing a major expansion, so its water well needed to be relocated. “It’s a fairly typical well for around here,” notes Willmarth. “A 6-inch well, 72 feet down – through silty sand and gravel.”

Willmarth’s rig is a rebuilt 1979 20W Bucyrus Erie, mounted on his 1996 International 4700. He purchased it in 2006. ”I had been contemplating buying a rotary rig for some time,” he relates. “Things were real busy, but I didn’t want the headaches of having to travel and do the volume of wells that would be required to support the purchase. It turned out great because two years later, the economy tanked. If I had bought the rotary rig I was looking at, I would have been in big trouble. It ended up being a great move.”

Willmarth has been averaging 30 to 40 well installations over the past few years, down considerably since the early 2000s when he was doing 80 to 90 wells annually. And he describes his outlook for the next couple years as “stagnant,” which, in these times, certainly isn’t the worst position to be in.

Willmarth Well Drilling was founded in 1979 by Buck’s father, Larry, with Buck assuming ownership in 1999. The company’s work is strictly residential, and usually is confined to a 50-mile radius. He’s got half a dozen or so competitors in his market area, and he describes them as easy to get along with – for the most part. There are one or two outfits that will make things difficult price-wise with undercutting tactics, but Willmarth holds to his prices.

Willmarth has a 17-year-old daughter, Carli, and she’s been out in the field with him a bit. Does she have a future in drilling? “Probably not,” says dad. She’s into wildlife management and conservation, which she plans to pursue in college next year.

So what is the future for Willmarth Well Drilling? “We’re going to make it through this recession, come out the other end, and then go from there,” Willmarth proclaims. “As long as things don’t get any worse, I should be OK. My overhead is minimal, so that’s why we can keep going.”