Their story reads like a novel set in the 19th century coal mining camps of West Virginia.
It’s a story of sons following fathers into the work fields at young ages, of boys leaving formal schooling behind to become men, to provide for families by logging one honest day’s labor after another.
It’s a story of integral mothers, raising children (and, the fathers joke, raising them too) and lending behind-the-scenes hands to the stable operation of the family business.
Except for the Williams clan, whose roots run deep in the Gunnison and Lake City communities, this story unfolds above ground, in the fresh Rocky Mountain air. And instead of digging for the dirty black rock that is coal, they mine for the cleanest, most life-sustaining resource of all: Water.
The Williamses are well drillers. They have been for 50 years. And with the third generation now firmly implanted in the business, they say they plan to be for another half century.
Aug. 1, 1967, is when Williams Drilling officially was born. That’s when Bob and Laura Mae Williams purchased two cable tool drilling rigs (one of which sits today at Gunnison’s Pioneer Museum) from Clyde “Tiny” and Caribel Peoples.
The photo in the Gunnison County Globe newspaper commemorating the purchase shows Rick — called Ricky back then at age 8 — standing proudly in front of his dad, hard hat and coveralls on, ready to get to work.
“Drilling was a good babysitter,” he recalls. “It kept me out of trouble. I went with my dad all the time.”
That apprenticeship took on a more serious tone before Rick was even out of high school. In 1977 Bob suffered a heart attack, and Rick naturally stepped right into his father’s shoes so Williams Drilling wouldn’t miss a beat.
But Rick couldn’t carry on the laborious work alone. This is where deep, lasting friendship enters the story.
“We started running around together in the third grade,” Frank Roper explains of his pal and now longtime business partner Rick Williams. “He offered me a job right out of high school. That was 1978.”
Just like Laura Mae before her, Rick’s wife of 34 years, Dottie, has been heavily involved in running the business. In 2006 she left a job with what was then known as the Colorado Division of Wildlife to manage the office full time, keeping records and ensuring all licensing and permitting is kept up-to-date.
“We have some of the oldest water well records in the state,” she notes, “dating back to 1956.”
Rick and Dottie have two sons, Frankie and Tom, both married and with children of their own. Tom has worked alongside his dad full-time since 2007. Frank currently drives heavy equipment for the Colorado Department of Transportation but plans to return to the drilling business after Rick retires.
Successfully drilling for water takes a mix of science and art. Getting the rig into position oftentimes is an adventure itself. And selecting the precise location to place a family’s hopes and dreams is critically important.
That’s where well “witchers,” or “dowsers,” can come into play. Witching is the practice of using a Y or L shaped rod, oftentimes a willow branch, in an attempt to locate groundwater. The witcher walks the ground holding the rod, and where it bends toward the earth marks the spot where water is believed to lie underneath.
The Williamses don’t witch themselves, but they’ve had plenty of clients employ someone who does. Gene Hollenbeck, now deceased, did it for years. Today Steve Crittendon is the resident well witcher of Gunnison County.
“I don’t know if it’s voodoo or not,” Rick explains of the practice that is officially known as a pseudoscience. “But I’ve seen it work.”
Gunnison County and the surrounding high country is blessed with abundant groundwater. Rick says they’ve punched very few dry wells — and, to date, Williams Drilling has dug 2,724 of them.
He also estimates that 95 percent of the residential subdivisions in Gunnison County are fed by water from one of his wells.
Each project presents its own challenges, and of course there have been some misadventures over the years — but fortunately, no serious injuries.
There was the time a tire blew out while Frank was driving a rig back from Cortez, over-turning on the highway near Ridgway. And the time a rig got stuck smack-dab in the middle of Taylor River, which Frank and Rick were attempting to ford out of fear the residential bridge leading to the drill site wasn’t sturdy enough to support the heavy equipment.
But these and countless others are the types of stories the lifelong friends and longtime business partners can regale a stranger in for hours, over lots of black coffee and even more laughter.
“If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you might as well quit,” Rick sums up.
1998 was a banner year for Williams Drilling, when they dug 110 wells — a record for the company. The Great Recession brought some lean times, when Frank even commuted for a few years over to Chaffee County to find drilling work.
“We’ve been really lucky,” Rick says. “We’ve had some lean times, but we’ve always had some work to keep us going.
“Gunnison and Hinsdale counties have been really good to us.”
For the untold thousands of people today taking drinks of water made available to them by the work of this no-nonsense, blue collar family, they’d say Williams Drilling has been really good to them.
(Chris Dickey can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)