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Tradition prepares grandson to continue in family business

Staff writer

With the help of his grandfather, Paul Backhus, Jason Backhus, 31, of Tampa is carrying on a business that was started in 1919 by his great-grandfather, William Backhus, and E.G. Meyer.

Jason Backhus relies on his grandfather’s expertise to help him in various drilling situations. The older Backhus’ many years of experience taught him what to expect when they begin to drill a well. He knows whether they will encounter sand, flint rock, shale, clay, or limestone, and he often can determine how deep the well will be and how much water it will have.

“Each one drills different,” he said. “You have to know what you are doing. It takes a lot of experience.”

After a well is drilled, the crew puts a casing down the hole and installs a pump. Larry Rudolph is a longtime employee.

At age 81, Grandpa Paul lines up drilling jobs, calls Dig Safe to check for buried utility lines in the area, and does all the preparatory and regulatory work each well requires. He said government regulations began in 1975, requiring him to be licensed. Paperwork has steadily increased. Paul’s wife, Edna, helps with that. Drillers are required to keep a log on every well and send records to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Jason Backhus has installed a lot of solar pumps lately. Along with a generator, solar pumps work great where electricity access is limited. He said the pumps are expensive but come with a government subsidy, which defrays some of the cost. He said the latest technology allows a pump to be turned off and on remotely with a mobile app.

He also works on windmills and has a special truck to pull the old wells and refurbish them.

When Paul Backhus was born in 1933, his father had sold his drilling rig to devote full-time to farming, but he repurchased it in 1945. Paul was 15 when he began to help his father with the water-well business.

He owned a “cable tool” wood-framed rig that used a cable with a weight on the end to drive the drill bit down into the ground. It was driven by a one-cyclinder mounted engine.

At that time, every community in the county had at least one water-well driller. Water could often be found 20 feet down, but the water level has steadily declined. The deepest well the men have drilled so far was 240 feet deep.

Paul owns two rigs similar to the one his father owned, but they have four-cylinder engines.

In 1968, he bought an updated air rotary rig with a drill driven by the truck motor. He said an experienced oil field operator taught him how to operate it. It has diamond carbide bits, which are harder than the older bits and can penetrate rock more quickly.

Jason was in high school when he often accompanied his grandpa to drilling sites. He bought his own rig shortly after graduating from Centre High School in 2001.

Paul said the development of rural water districts reduced the need for water-well drillers, but demand remains high. They serve customers in Marion County and all the surrounding counties.

The two men said they work well together.

“Sometimes we don’t agree,” Paul said. “I have some old ways. The younger ones have different ideas. It has to go fast.”

They drill about 200 wells a year.

Paul is on dialysis three times a week, but he is out on the drilling site as often as possible. He likes to be with his grandson when he is at work.

“I don’t like him being out there alone,” he said. “I used to do it all the time, but this is different.”

Jason said it’s a dirty, muddy job and not something most people would want to do.

“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I guess it’s in my blood.”

Last modified March 26, 2015

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