John and JP Schmitt check out a rotary rig at the 1962 NWWA Convention in Cincinnati. Photo credit: John Schmitt.

With the 2012 National Ground Water Association (NGWA) Groundwater Expo set for Dec. 4-7 in Las Vegas, I have decided to write a few thoughts about previous NGWA conventions that I have attended.

If you have read many of my columns, you know that my father was also a well driller/pump man. He enjoyed NGWA conventions and, for that matter, any meeting of drillers and pump installers. While he enjoyed seeing new products-and from the 1940s through the 1970s there seemed to be a lot of these-he especially enjoyed what today we call networking-that is, visiting with other members of our industry and learning about their problems, their solutions to those problems and their goals. He joined the then-Michigan Well Drillers Association (MWDA) around 1950 and was a lifelong member. He attended just about every MWDA show from before the time he joined until a few years before his death at 92, his physical health declining only in the last few years.

I guess his enjoyment of conventions rubbed off on me as I attended driller meetings with him when I was a teenager. I actually joined the MWDA at age 21 while I was still attending college but also working in our industry on weekends and during summers. I attended all but a few of the conventions that my dad attended, the exceptions being when a convention conflicted with my class schedule at the University of Michigan. In addition to the state association, we both knew about the then-National Water Well Association (NWWA) and read the “Water Well Journal” in the early 1950s. Attendance at the annual NWWA show was a different matter, though, since attending would require overnight travel, and I just couldn’t spare the time from classes.

I graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering on June 13, 1959. Two days later, I became a partner in our company and am still with that operation. Since I was then working full time, attending a NWWA show was possible. So in the fall of 1959-I believe November-my dad and I boarded a turboprop airplane and flew all the way to Milwaukee to the convention. This was also my first time on an airplane-and that was back when the seats were roomy, there was no security to speak of, and you always got something to eat. Although just a short flight, it was very enjoyable. My dad had taken some short flights at fairs in the 1920s and said the airline industry had come quite a long way. He enjoyed conventions, but he also really enjoyed flying and did get to fly in some modern jets.

Anyway, when we got to Milwaukee we found the convention to be, frankly, not much. They had table-top displays in a hotel and no rigs-rotaries, spudders, or pump hoists-whatsoever. It was a good trip, though, and visiting a number of drillers only whetted our appetite for NWWA conventions. For whatever reason we did not attend the convention the next couple years, but in the fall of 1962 we drove down to Cincinnati, riding with a supply-house salesman who called on us and was a good friend. This trip was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and everybody was on edge. Thank God that crisis ended without any bombs being dropped. When we got to the convention in Cincinnati, we found it was also held at a hotel, but this time they did have exhibit booths. Again, however, there were no rigs to be seen. We were told they were about 5 miles away.

We were also told that when the rigs showed up at Cincinnati the local folks had planned to put them on the banks of the Ohio River at about a 15-degree angle. Most of you know that you can’t set a rig up with those conditions. They decided to set the rigs up in the parking lot of Crosley Field, which is where the Cincinnati Reds played baseball in those days. Crosley Field itself was unique considering the playing field dimensions and the famous terrace in the outfield, but that is another story. The rig exhibit in the parking lot was extensive, and we spent an enjoyable rainy morning looking them all over. I remember that the Sanderson Cyclone Drill Co., then based in Orrville, Ohio, had an extensive display. Since the rigs they made were well suited to the Michigan market, looking them over was very interesting for us. Cyclone, as it was better known, later sold out to Ingersoll Rand, and I believe some of these rigs are made by Atlas Copco today. We had a really good time at this convention, which was more like a real convention especially since the Michigan show in those days was a big event with lots of booths and rigs.

Attendees at the 1968 NWWA Convention mingle among the rig displays in Washington, D.C.

Again, for whatever reason, we did not attend conventions in ’63, ’64 or ’65, but in 1966 the show returned to Columbus, Ohio, downtown at the Veterans Memorial Building-at least I think that is what it is called. Shirley and I rode down with another driller from our area and his wife. Both of those folks are now gone, but we had a really fine time. It was a good show with lots of booths and a lot of rigs right outside in a parking lot-not at the ball park. It was at this show that the late Ira Goodwin from Maine convinced me that I needed to join NWWA. Ira is no longer alive, but I was able to thank him in his lifetime for signing me up; it has been a great experience to be an NWWA/NGWA member.

My dad and I went the next year to Des Moines, Iowa, and I remember flying from Chicago to Des Moines in a prop plane at the time. As we boarded, my dad said, “Aw gee, it’s an impeller job.”

I said, “No dad, it is a propeller job.”

Shirley and I traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1968 for a really great show organized by NWWA’s new executive director, Dr. Jay Lehr. This year was the beginning of the “really, really big shows”-to quote the late Ed Sullivan-that we see today.

In 1971, Shirley and I went to the first of the Las Vegas shows. Las Vegas in those days was not nearly as large as it is today. We shared a plane with some other drillers from Michigan who were good friends; sadly, all but two of those folks are no longer with us. The headquarters for this show was Caesars Palace with a lot of inside displays and a huge number of rigs out on the parking lot. This was the age of big-time entertainment in Las Vegas, and the shows were really quite reasonably priced compared with today’s shows. A popular practice at that time was to go to the early or dinner show. The thinking was that you had to eat anyhow, so why not eat and enjoy a show? I think it was that year that we saw Dean Martin, who managed to stumble over many of his lines while still being funny. This was the era when many of the performers, not Martin or other headliners, appeared in pretty skimpy costumes-if they wore a costume at all.

This was the era when being entertained by the rig, pump and screen companies was also very popular. This entertainment usually included an invitation to their hospitality room followed by going out to dinner. In both segments plenty of adult beverages were served. I think it was in 1971 that we were taken to either dinner or a show in a large group by a major pump manufacturer. Upon returning to Caesars Palace, everyone else jumped into cabs, and Shirley and I were left to fend for ourselves. We got a cab and went back. When the cab pulled up to unload us, the sales manager and assistant sales manager were on both sides of the cab with folding money and apologies. We weren’t upset; I just thought if you were in charge of a group you should be the last person to board the transportation.

In this era a package to Las Vegas included hotel reservations, plane transportation and a goody bag of coupons good for free gifts at various casinos. Often they included an ash tray and other little trinkets, but perhaps also a few chips that could be used at the tables. In 1971, our goody bag included a free champagne breakfast at Caesars Palace with the qualification that it had to be eaten between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.

The second-to-last night we were in town the convention was pretty much over, and I think we did both the dinner show and the midnight show somewhere. Since we were getting in sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., we used the coupon and got the free champagne breakfast. Although this was 41 years ago, I remember it was a nice meal with eggs, meat, rolls, coffee and, of course, the champagne. As we sipped our champagne I noticed that it was 5:30 a.m. PST, and I said to Shirley, “Well, the girls are up and off to school.” Shirley’s mother and father were staying with our three daughters;  her parents enjoyed watching them while we were away, and the girls enjoyed seeing Grandpa and Grandma Hayes.

Shirley replied, “No John, you’re wrong, it is only 5:30.”

I said, “Yes, but it is 8:30 in the Eastern time zone.”  Shirley looked a little pale for a few seconds when it dawned on her that she was still out on the town and her daughters were at school.

I could write dozens of columns about memories of NGWA Expos but will mention only one other-a goofy two-city convention held in 1995. We started in Columbus, Ohio, and then we all raced over to Indianapolis to finish it up. Why we ever approved this scheme is beyond me, and-full disclaimer-I was an NGWA officer at the time. In fact, I received the gavel as president at the Indianapolis segment of that show. I have not missed an NGWA show since 1975 and have attended a total of 45. I have to say that I have never attended an Expo that I did not think was worth my while, and at every one I have either seen a new product, learned a new procedure or met someone beneficial to know.

All this being said, I hope you make it to Las Vegas in 2012, and if you see me walking around, stop and say hello. I still look pretty much like the guy whose picture appears with this column. Fall has come to Michigan and the weather has been very nice-real good for outside work. Travel safe and enjoy the Expo.  ND