I descend from farmers on my maternal and paternal sides. Until the 1930s, I never found an ancestor who was not a farmer. Joel Hugh Burt, my maternal great-grandfather, was an exception.
Joel Hugh Burt was born 19 Nov 1865, in Barry County, Michigan, to Henry Jasper Burt and Margaret Jane (Gordon) Burt. Joel didn’t like the name so he called himself Joseph all his life. ¹
Joseph married Virginia Williams on 3 Dec 1891 in Osage County, Missouri. ² He was twenty-six and she was twenty-two. The first indication that Joseph was not destined to be a farmer came from the birth record of my Grandmother Estella May in 1894. ³ Her birth record showed he was a watchmaker. But wait, the 1900 census showed he was a watchmaker living on a farm. What? More than likely he needed to do a little farming, and a little watchmaking, to make ends meet.
Fast forward to 4 Nov 1905. Joseph was appointed postmaster for Feursville in Osage County. ⁴ Perhaps this was a temporary position or he found the job didn’t suit him because, on 22 Jan 1906, he was replaced by Lydia Dahm.
By 1910, Joseph finally found his niche in society. He became a well-digger. ⁵ For centuries drilling for water was done by hand. By the 1900s, mechanical drills were available for seeking out water, especially water deep in the earth. Joseph would have used a drill like the one in the picture.
To build his business, he marketed his services through advertisements in the Osage County Directory 1915.⁶
His sons joined him in his business. As his business became more successful, articles began to appear in the Bland Courier. No doubt these articles helped his business grow. One such article read, “The Burt brothers have finished a drilled well for Wm. Lichte. The well is 100 feet deep and affords an abundance of good cold water. Joe Burt thinks the middle of the earth is solid gold but does not know how to get it.” 7 Grandpa Burt had a sense of humor. When the International Shoe Company built its factory in Bland in 1922, Joe was awarded the contract for digging a well for the factory.
On 1 Sep 1922, the Bland Courier reported, “Last Thursday Joe Burt and sons finished the deep well for the International Shoe Company. The drilling of this well has been underway for several weeks and is just 392 feet deep. Last Thursday the well was shot with 106 sticks of dynamite. The explosion of this amount of dynamite is supposed to have produced a hollow space in the bottom of the well all the way from five to ten in diameter and also to have shivered the rock so as to let in the underflow of water into the well. The well is supposed to yield 240 gallons of water per hour.” 8 In other words, the explosion caused the rock to quake.
Being a well-digger was not for the faint of heart. It was a very dangerous job. On 31 Oct 1922, the Bland Courier reported, “Just before putting the finishing touches on the International Company’s deep well here Thursday an accident occurred which came very near costing Joe Burt a few fingers. They were in the act of letting down 106 sticks of dynamite to shoot the 392 foot well, when the wire cable which hoisted the drilling machinery got off the trolly and while Mr. Burt was trying to put the same on again got his hand under the wire rope, between the flange of the trolley and the frame works of the drilling machinery and it took nearly a dozen men to release his hand from its impingement. After he was released he was taken to a Doctors office where it was at first thought several fingers would have to be amputated, but which proved later not to be necessary. He was given an immunizing dose of 1500 units of anti-tetanus serum to prevent any infection from that source. Mr. Burt is doing nicely at this writing.” 9
The dynamiting was extremely dangerous, as was the rigging. He was fortunate he came away from the incident a whole man. Eventually, three of his sons, Hugh, Edward, and Elzie Everett joined him in the business. He was able to retire by 1940 as the sons had taken over the business by then.
My cousin told me that Joseph was a well-digger for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. She got the information from my grandmother. It’s possible that he worked at the World’s Fair, but I doubt that he had well-drilling equipment at that time. He may have worked as a laborer and got the idea to go into the well-drilling business from that work. For now, there is no documentation to support this claim.
As I mentioned before, I descend from farmers. That began to change during the lifetimes of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers and definitely by the time my father came of age. Small towns were growing and offering more job opportunities. Factories were moving out of the big cities to small towns. A steady job, with steady pay, often supplanted the vagaries of farming. From watchmaker to postmaster to well-driller, Joseph made his mark in the industry.