Ag Innovators John & Gus Thieszen

In 1939, two brothers and their cousins gathered on one of the brother’s farm to dig one of the first irrigation wells in York County, Nebraska. They dug it by hand.

The work was dirty, backbreaking and claustrophobic. Even digging a hole 40-inches wide, they had to cut off the handle of a spade so they could actually dig in the confined space. Inch by inch, they dug through the rich, black topsoil. Then they slogged through hard, sticky clay. They dug through shale. Inch by inch, they dug and then filled the loose dirt into five-gallon buckets that were hauled to the surface by John’s B Model John Deere tractor.

Finally, they hit sand and knew they’d find water soon. They did. Then John Thieszen went to town and hired a well driller named Ludwig to come out and finish the well. The professional used a “sand bucket” that was lowered into the hole and then turned to fill it up with sand. That was then hoisted back up and dumped. They dug to 140 feet, cased the well and installed a pump.

Irrigation had arrived in York County.

Soon after that first well, they did the whole process over again, digging a second well by hand on Dan Thieszen’s farm. But that was enough. Digging by hand was too much work.

John and Gus had seen a professional well driller and decided they could build their own. They got an old truck, built a derrick that could be raised up from the bed and put a motor on it.

Not everything went smoothly. As they were finishing the well and lowering the last sections of casing down, the clamp holding the casing let loose and the entire assembly crashed to the bottom. Luckily they only had ten feet to go, but it meant that a man had to be lowered head-first down into the hole to bolt the remaining sections to the ones that had dropped.

Homemade or not, the drilling rig became the basis of a successful business. In 1940, John and his brother Gus began drilling commercially. In 1943, Gus took over the business with three other investors. Video InterviewThe Gustav Irrigation Company operated until 1970 and built over 2,400 irrigation wells in the region.

According to John’s son-in-law Gordon Schmidt, digging that first by hand spurred the innovation that resulted in the drilling machine. Gordon says that that first well driller was a work in progress when they dug their first well with it. “I’m sure he was tickled to death to try to find out what he was doing,” Gordon says, “because Diena Schmidt Interviewthey were finishing it on the job, the machine.”

John’s daughter Diena Thieszen Schmidt (Gordon’s wife) says her dad and his brother were innovators. “To him [my dad] it was very boring [to be a farmer and] to be driving back and forth on a field when he could be sitting in his shop tinkering on something,” she says. “When he slept, I don’t know.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.