Sunspots: John and Joe Conroy
It can be said of the well-drilling business that it’s a mighty deep subject. Lifelong Hancock residents and fourth-generation well drillers, John and Joe Conroy, may tend to agree.
The Conroy family has been drilling wells in the west central Minnesota area for 130 years. In 1878, John’s grandfather and namesake traveled with two oxen and a tent from the railroad stop at Clontarf, Minn., to homestead in what is now section 15, Tara Township, Swift County. Along with working his own farm, he was asked to drill wells and put up windmills for those who settled in the area. The work was done manually and with horses.
Around 1900 John [grandfather] built a shop and home in Hancock where the current city water tower stands, and went into the well business full-time with his brother. In 1925 John’s son, Francis (Irish), joined the business. The father and son continued to drill wells and put up windmills with horsepower until 1941 when they switched to a Howell gas-powered wood-framed drill rig. The service rig and pull-vehicle was a 1941 Chevrolet pickup.
In 1955 the old wood-framed drill rig was replaced with an iron-framed truck-mounted Bucyrus Erie drill rig. John Conroy retired in the early 1940s and Irish was joined in the business by sons John, Jim, Pat and Mick.
In the late 1960s Irish retired and son John took over the business. John converted to a modern rotary drilling rig in 1968, and soon after installed the first plastic-cased well in west central Minnesota, setting the standard for the years to come. The Schramm rig now in use is entirely hydraulic rather than mechanical; state-of-the-art equipment for drilling.
John and wife Della have four children: Julia, Joe, Tom and Mary.
John’s son Joe joined the business in 1992. Daughter Julia and son-in-law Josh have also worked in the business. “Girls can do it too,” said John, who hopes to pass his legacy to a fifth generation, possibly even a granddaughter.
Joe and wife Shawna have two daughters, Greta and Lauren. Joe is a 1994 graduate of Hancock High School and studied geology at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
But back to the business of well drilling. How does one even begin to drill a well?
“Dad picks the spot,” said Joe. “We ream out a small hole, then put on a bigger bit and drill in the same spot to find water. We insert a five to six-inch diameter plastic casing. The time it takes to drill depends on how many rocks you hit. When all goes well, we can dig a 120-foot well in a 12-14 hour day.”
“My dad could dig an average of eight wells in the summer, eight in the winter,” said John. “Now we can dig about 30 in an average year.”
Joe, who dug his first well alone at the age of 17, admits he “does things differently” than his dad. In a sometimes-dangerous business—working in deep trenches and with heavy equipment—“I’m always looking for a faster and better way. After that first time when I mishandled a pressure tank, it was three years before Dad would let me go alone again. His advice to me is ‘slow down.’”
John’s dad told his son to “get up early,” advice which he follows to this day, rising around 5 a.m. or whenever daylight breaks.
Well drilling is “not a job,” said the Conroys. “It’s a way of life, you’re always on call…you don’t retire.” The Conroys don’t own four-wheelers or snowmobiles, but both like to garden when there’s time.
“With bigger farms and businesses today, well drilling is a declining occupation,” said John, who operates one of the oldest well-drilling businesses in the state. Still, the Conroys remain in west central Minnesota as their family has for generations because their friends and neighbors need them. “Farmers need good water. We’re still working for some of the same farms and replacing wells in this area that we installed in the 1960s.”