I write this column on Dec. 1, a few days before the 2023 Groundwater Week event in Las Vegas. If you attended this National Ground Water Association (NGWA) event, you will probably be home and back to work by now. If you did not attend, you will be reading about it in the trade magazines. This being the 75th convention, I would very much have liked to attend but family matters and mobility issues kept me home.

Today’s column focuses on some events from the past that I remember fondly. It is interesting to note that Groundwater Week started out as the convention of the then-National Water Well Association (NWWA), that being an earlier name for the NGWA. Some years later, the event became the Expo and now we call it Groundwater Week. For simplicity, I’ll simply call it the convention, which is what it will always be to me.

My first NWWA convention was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in November 1959. That was my first full-time year in the industry, and my father and I were partners. We flew over from Detroit, and that was also the first time I had ever flown. The convention itself was a bit of a disappointment, as no rigs were on display. It was just table-top booths in a hotel. (I have always felt that rigs of any kind, sometimes called the “iron pile,” were what attracted contractors.) Even without the rigs, my dad and I had a good time and met several well-known people in the industry. I think this wetted my appetite for further conventions, although I had attended my first Michigan convention in 1952.

The next convention we went to was at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1962. We rode to the convention with a salesman from a supply house. This was about the time of the Cuban missile crisis and everyone was a bit edgy. Thank God reason prevailed and we did not go to war. This convention did have many rigs on display, the catch being they were several miles from the hotel that hosted the individual booths. It seems that the parking lot near the hotel had a very steep angle. The rigs could not put masts up for fear of tipping. The leaders decided to set them up in the parking lot of Crosley Field, then home to the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. We had another good time at this event and looked forward to future conventions.

Meeting Groundwater Industry Greats

The next convention I went to was in 1966 in Columbus, Ohio. My wife and I rode to this convention with another contractor we knew and his wife. The group held this event at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium downtown and they had rigs galore right outside the auditorium. To quote the late Ed Sullivan, “It was a really great show.” At this convention, I chatted at the NWWA booth with the late Ira Goodwin from Maine who later became the group’s president. He asked if I was an NWWA member. I said I was not, and we discussed some reasons why I should join. He rather quickly pulled out a membership application and handed it to me saying, “We need people like you in the association.” I filled out the form right there and have been a member ever since. A few years ago, I was awarded life membership in NGWA, the name of NWWA since 1991. I am very proud of that.

My dad and I flew out to the 1967 convention in Des Moines, Iowa, having to stop in Chicago to change planes. That was another good convention with the rigs near the hotel. (If you get the feeling I like looking at rigs, you are right.) The big news at that convention was the NWWA leadership had hired a new executive director, Jay Lehr, Ph.D. I got to know Lehr personally over many years. Like everyone, he had his faults, but I consider him the father of the modern NGWA.

The next year’s convention held in the Washington, D.C., area is my proof. The difference between the 1967 and 1968 events was astounding – a huge improvement in size and style.

The next year’s convention held in the Washington, D.C., area is my proof. The difference between the 1967 and 1968 events was astounding – a huge improvement in size and style. Say what you like, Lehr and his staff knew how to put on a convention. The site was out in the suburbs, in an area called Rock Creek Park if I remember correctly. The last day of that convention my wife, Shirley, and I took a tour of our Capitol. It was an eye-opener. I had been there only once, in 1953. Shirley had been there with her parents in 1941 and 1956. To say we had a grand time would be an understatement.

Our First National Show in Las Vegas

The next convention that sticks in my memory was the 1971 event in Las Vegas, the first in that city, at Caesars Palace. The rigs were out on the parking lot and this was the first convention held in December. (You really would not want to have a convention in December in Michigan with the rigs outside.) This event was a real bash with a famous entertainer at the annual banquet — a big deal in those days. Again, to say we had a good time would be an understatement.

In those days, your travel package included plane tickets, hotel accommodations and perhaps some free meals. You could also go into a casino and get a free ashtray, a book of matches, a keyring or some other cheap trinket to take home. In 1971, part of our package included a free champagne breakfast in the Caesar’s dining room. The catch? You had to eat this between 2 and 5 a.m. I think we caught a late show, visited with friends and ended up eating breakfast at about 4:30 or 4:45 a.m., having been up all night. I remember the breakfast being really good and, yes, we had a couple glasses of champagne.

As we finished I looked at my watch and it was 5:15 a.m. We had been up all night. I said to Shirley, “Well our girls are off to school.” Our three daughters had stayed home with their grandparents who had come to visit. Shirley replied, “No, John, it’s only 5:00.” I said, “But it is 8:15 in Michigan and they are on the school bus.” She got this very faint look; she was still out on the town and her daughters were going to school. This was another in a long line of great conventions — the first of many at Las Vegas.

At the 1989 convention in Houston I was elected to the NWWA board. For the next 10 years or so, conventions were more work than fun. As a director and officer, you had plenty of responsibilities, but that was okay. I still had a great time.

Getting the Most from Industry Conventions

I could go on and on with pages and pages of conventions past. As it is, I have rattled on longer than I should but conventions and meetings are two of my favorite subjects. Sadly, I have missed the last few but I was there in spirit. I end this walk down memory lane with an admonition. If you go to a convention —  a national, regional or state event, or even a dealer day — you cannot fail to gain valuable experience, see a new machine, learn a new process or meet someone worth your while to know. I have proven this myself over the last 71 years since I went to my first Michigan Well Drillers Convention at Grand Rapids in 1952.

That said, I add that you have to really go to the convention. Go to education sessions that interest you or don’t interest you. Walk the convention floor and visit with those exhibitors you know and don’t know. This does not mean you can register, poke your head into the exhibit hall for 10 minutes and then leave for the bar, the tables or three days in Mesquite, Nevada. I have heard of this, and that’s not going to the convention. If you went in December 2023, I am willing to bet you had a good time and learned a lot. If you did not, there is always 2024 and a whole bunch of state and regional shows you can attend this winter.

Speaking of winter, we had a small but significant snowstorm in the last week. Today it turned warm and melted off, but that is Michigan in early December. Soon, the snow will stay — at least until spring. My trusty lawn tractor is now set up as a plow. I am ready for it. I wish all you readers a happy holidays and hope you have a successful 2024. Next time, I will write about more unusual practices and situations I have encountered in my career.

A Lifetime in Drilling

We interviewed columnist and former NGWA President John Schmitt for our Drilling In-Site video series. Click here to hear him share his cable-tool expertise and wisdom earned with decades in the industry.

For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.thedriller.com/schmitt.