Top News

Salmon River's Johnson family drilling wells for more than a century


SALMON RIVER, N.S. —

Special occasions? Not so much. But if he’s ever drilled a well for you, chances are, he remembers.

“I do retain that stuff,” says Greg Johnson. “I have a hard time with grandkids’ birthdays but… I can tell you about a well I drilled 30 years ago. How deep it was, how much casing,” he said. “Some of that stuff just sticks because you’re interested in it anyways.”

Greg is the third-generation member of his family’s 101-year-old well drilling operation. Standing at the site of a new-home construction site in Lower Onslow, he watches water spewing from the ground as his son Brian, representing the fourth generation, operates the drill rig.

It’s a modern drill system, capable of boring some 100-ft. deep in about 30 minutes, under the right conditions. But even in a bad area, today’s technology is a vast improvement from when Greg’s grandfather, Oran Johnson, first started out in 1918 with a horse-drawn “pounder” rig.

“The first rotary machine that Ivan (Greg’s father) bought was in 1974. So I was still in high school,” he said. “My dad figured there was no way I was going to stay in the business with an old pounder; he had to take the next step and move to a rotary to retain my interest. So that’s how things started.”

And, oh what a difference the rotary drill made.

Greg, had started working on the rig during summers beginning at age 15, was helping his father one day when his grandfather stopped by.

“And he was just totally amazed how fast that would drill,” Greg said. “You could drill 20 feet, eight-inch diameter, in seven minutes. And Oran would say ‘I can’t believe how fast that drills. But I gotta believe, I just saw it.’”

Keeping pace with technological changes have been an important part of the company’s longevity, Greg said. But that is just one element of why the company has survived for more than a century.

“It is a challenge. But we try to work a little smarter instead of harder. We’re improving our gear,” he said. “We try to stay on the edge of any changes in technology to make the job easier.”

His nearly 50 years of experience doesn’t hurt either.

“I’ve got a pretty good feel, I’d say within a 50- or 60-mile radius of Truro. I’m not going to get fooled in too many areas.”

Even in the regions he hasn’t drilled, chances are Greg has spoken to others who know a given area’s water history. So, too, for Brian.

Like his father, Brian started working on drill sites when he was in his mid-teens. After completing a Business degree at St. FX University in 2005 he went into well drilling full time.

“We’ve got records dating back to the ’40s. There’s a lot that has been passed along and things that he’s told me, but just knowing your areas and where the geology changes and what you can expect to get into,” Brian said.

“We take good pride in our work. The way I do it and the way I tell the guys that work for us, treat each job like you are doing it for yourself and do the best job you can do for them.”

Drilling wells is a hot, dirty, messy business. But father and son alike say they find it “rewarding” and satisfying when they leave a site after a successful drill.

These days, those duties are pretty much left up to Brian and his hired hands, with Greg doing the advance work for new clients.

“You have to enjoy what you are doing. And I have been blessed to always enjoy this type of work,” Greg said. “I found it interesting itself and it’s nice to be able to pass that on to another generation. In this day and age to see three generations in a business that’s huge. Four, that’s rare and I don’t look at that lightly. I am tremendously pleased. My dad would be blown away and, as my grandfather would, to see that this is still going on.”

So how much longer will he stay at it?

“ ‘Til he tells me to go home and stay home,” Greg chuckled, with a nod in his son’s direction.

Who knew?

 Greg Johnson assumed control of Hub Drilling in 1986 at age 29 after his father suddenly passed away. He started working in the well-drilling business during summer vacations beginning at age 15. 

“I was always interested but somewhat I think it was expected of me, too,” he said. “But it was interesting because every night at the supper table dad would always be talking about the places he was drilling at, the people he was working for. And I still remember the conversation one night, it was in 1971, when he was drilling the first well for Sparking Spring Waters (now Canadian Springs) in Valley. And dad was chuckling, he said: ‘I can’t believe this guy thinks he can sell water.’ That was the most far-fetched job he’d ever done. I remember laughing.  Dad said, ‘who in hell is going to pay for water?’

“Well, we all know the rest of that story. We pay more for water than we do for gasoline now.

“And that was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Johnson’s first drill was a ‘pounder’

 What is now Hub Well Drilling Ltd., was originally called O.S. Johnson Artesian Welldriller when it was started by Oran Johnson in 1918.

And unlike the rotary drills used in today’s practice, Oran’s first rig was operated with a cable system that repeatedly lifted up a drill bar and dropped, to pound a hole into the ground. Occasionally, water would be dumped into the hole to create a slurry to make it easier to remove the dirt from the slowly deepening hole. 

“And then, every so often, they would send what is called a bailer down, which is just basically a kind of hollow pipe with a kind of dart valve on the bottom,” said Oran’s great-grandson Brian Johnson.

When the dart valve was filled was slurry it would be pulled to the surface and dumped.

“It was very much slower,” Johnson said. “A little bit crude but it did the job I guess.”

That rig was also pulled by a horse from one well site to another until some years later when it was attached to the front end of an early truck.

Hub Well Drilling history

Hub Well Drilling was founded in 1918 by Oran Johnson, originally under the title O.S. Johnson Well Drilling. The humble beginnings saw Oran running a small horse-drawn “pounder” machine providing water to various members of the community. 

After serving with the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War, Oran's son Ivan became involved with the business in 1945.

Growing populations and increased demand saw the expansion of a couple of cable tool rigs and eventually the purchase of it first rotary driller in 1973.

Greg took control of operations after Ivan's death in 1986 and has since evolved the company to its current status of two, large rotary rigs, two 1,500-gallon water trucks, and a pump/well repair service vehicle.

Greg’s son Brian joined fulltime in 2005 and now runs the drilling aspects of the company.

The current office and service facility was constructed on Salmon River Road in 1993.

Recent Stories