Estevan's Vern Becker passed away on Feb. 10. at the age of 91. In our May 2011 edition, Pipeline News featured Becker in our series about pioneers in the oilpatch. Here it is reprinted, in his memory, the adventures of a cement and tool man.
Estevan– The drilling rig he first worked on didn’t look like much – more like a water well rig – spindly and small. But it got Vern Becker into the oil drilling business in the earliest days.
“I started out working for Burggren Exploration and Drilling on a Failing 1500 rig in Alberta. They only drilled 4-3/4 inch holes. I worked with that for four years, then I worked for Dowell Canada for 30 years.”
Becker is retired now, and has been since he sold his business in 1994. He shoots a mean game of pool, and his wife, Elma, makes a lovely pound cake. Nowadays, Becker is going through his extensive files of memorabilia, and putting together his memoirs.
“My brother–in-law and I went to Leduc in 1951. When we were coming into Leduc, west of Leduc looked like a battlefield,” he recalled. That was the site of Atlantic No. 3, an enormous well blowout that had occurred the year before. “They had to turn on the lights in Leduc,” he said.
The hotel in town had blown up and burned a month before.
Becker was born in 1927, making him too young to fight in the Second World War. “My brother when to work in the coal mines during the war. I was working on a mink ranch at Weyburn. My dad farmed south of Weyburn, at Maxim, where I was born and raised.
“Everyone headed for Leduc. It was like leaving for the gold fields. When we got there, we couldn’t get a job.”
They were told to be at the gate of General Petroleum Drilling at 7 a.m. every day. If someone didn’t show up, they had a job. They could have gone to work building wooden derricks at Hanna. Instead, they hired on with Burggren Exploration Drilling.
They put that puny rig through its paces, with Becker saying they tried to go too deep for what the rig was capable of. They would hand dig sumps the size of a card table.
“We were getting $200 a month. That was big pay, plus any expense,” Becker said.
“We moved 32 times in four years,” Becker said. Elma joined him at Leduc later. “We got married Nov. 18, 1950, and move to Leduc in mid-January.”
His wife was in the hospital with their first born when workers told him “We just dropped a 24-inch pipe wrench down the hole,” Becker recounted. He responded, “Just keep turning. If we’re lucky, it might go into the side of the hole. We logged that hole, and it never bothered us.”
He found out it was a baby girl from a note left on his door. He went out and bought two boxes of cigars.
“I was in Devon when they were still grading the streets,” he said.
In 1955, Becker began his work for Dowell. It was all service work. “I hired on in Weyburn. We moved to Weyburn from Lestock. When we moved to Estevan, there was not trailer court. The mayor showed you where to park,” Becker said.
He parked behind Bud Dean’s place, and used their basement for their water supply.
In the spring of 1956, the boom started, and Becker got booted from the back lane. He would move to Oxbow. “I had 28 rigs working east of Oxbow, from Oxbow to the border. Holy smoke, I was busy.
“I was known as the cementing engineer. I did cementing at that time, and acid, of course. When we went out to do a frac, we had a little bitty mixer on the back of a farmer’s wagon. Cementing was different. We had an auger that would auger it up. We would blend it with water, mix it with paddles in a tub run by chain, and pump it down the hole. By the time it augered across the tub, it had to be ready, because it was going down the hole.
“Every so often, you would get a dry mix. You’d get on there with a 36-inch pipe wrench and a snipe. That wasn’t fun. We envied Howco and their jetmixers.”
At Steelman in the late 1950s, he said, “You could count 18 rigs from one location. There were rigs everywhere.”
The region never got above 30 or so rigs at the time, however. Steelman, Alida and Frobisher were the hot fields.
“We moved back to Estevan in 1960 because things slowed down. There wasn’t enough work to keep an outpost at the time. At that time, oil was selling for $2.15 per barrel. In Quebec, they were getting oil from Venezuela for $2. They would shut us down for two months, on top of road ban. They quit taking oil.”
Buying a more permanent home soon came.
“When we came from Oxbow, there were 10 brand new houses on Hudson Road. Six or eight were ready to go, and there was no one to buy them,” he said. They bought a house for $12,500. “Today, they have one listed across the street for $299,000.
“I was at Weyburn when they started drilling there. The boom was on there. There were no roads, stones were everywhere.”
Mobile Oil, Shell, Imperial Oil, they didn’t want to piddle around here,” he said. “There were no little companies then. Esso was big at Steelman, Gulf was another big company around Pinto and Lampman and Shell at Midale.”
He spent a little time in Sarnia, Ontario, in the late 1970s, and worked near Petrolia, Canada’s original oilfield.
“There, hundreds of old-style wells were still producing, using jerker rods to run them. They only made five barrels a day, from 35-foot deep wells.”
“I flew back and forth all winter from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I was a station manager before I went down East,” Becker said, adding you had to work your way up through cementing and acidizing to become a tool man.
“I lived through a shootout in Montreal,” Becker said.
In Central Canada, while finishing a hole at Drummondville, he stopped for a beer with his cementer who was stationed in Montreal. A number of truckers were haggling with a belly dancer. She came down and threw a glass of beer in his face then fired the glass under the table, hitting the base and smashing it into many pieces. The truck driver then proceeded to start smashing chairs and tables, just like in saloons in the early days.
The bouncer pulled out a baseball bat, only to have it taken away. He came back with a gun and fired it a few times. “I think we’ve had enough,” he recounted. “And we headed out in a hurry and sat in our truck.”
In 1966, Becker’s manager in Calgary went to the Emirates and Libya.
“He had no more than untied his shoes when he moved back to Calgary that he wanted me to go to Dartmouth for offshore work in 1976,” he said. “We used to burn up the phone lines to Calgary. He said there’s only one more move for you, and that’s Sable Island. You’ll have trouble calling me there.”
Esso had come to the East Coast, and there was a rush of offshore drilling. “When a rig came in, you had to run whatever was on it – B.J., Dowell or Howco,” Becker said.
There was just one man running the pumper on these rigs. They were drilling 12,000-ft. holes. “Mobile would make us pressure test to 15,000 pounds. We never went over 6,000 without bowing something up.
“One well, they circulated for two weeks to get rid of the gas and kill the well. If they got that bubble on the surface, it would tip the rig.”
Holes were so “tight” (secretive), he didn’t know where the men who worked for him were. “When they found the gusher off of Newfoundland, I didn’t even know it,” he said, referring to Hibernia. “I had five rigs running at that time, all the way from Sable Island past St. John’s and up the Labrador coast.”
Becker’s job was onshore, although he did get to go out to drill ships drilling for coal off Cape Breton. Most of his work was in Halifax harbour. “I was the district manager,” he said.
Becker had the unfortunate experience of losing one of his men when the semi-submersible drilling rig Ocean Ranger went down in a storm off Newfoundland in 1982.
“My cementer on a rig got off on the wrong foot with the drilling foreman. I convinced the drilling supervisor to give him another chance. When they cemented these deep holes before you got the plug to the bottom, the cement would set up, it was so hot.”
“He went down with the Ocean Ranger – Arthur Dagg. He was a single guy. That was a terrible thing to happen. He was determined to work on the offshore rigs.
“I felt terrible, that poor guy. He was bound to do his job. He had a brand new car sitting at home in Calgary. He was a good hand.”
Becker Oil Tools
Around this time, Becker ended up out west again, working as Dowell’s manager at Nisku.
“We were supplying Dome up in the Arctic with their cement and chemicals shipped up by truck and barge.”
He took the ice road up to Tuktoyaktuk, where they were supplying drilling ships.
It was in Edmonton where his work for Dowell came to an end. “In the spring of ’83 they run me off, after 30 years. ‘retired me.’ I came back here where it started.”
Back in southeast Saskatchewan he went to work for Facts Tools. “I really liked tools. I came down here with a load of tools, went back, and got another load.”
He had some disputes with the owner, and it didn’t work out. “I got my own tools from Elder, and that worked out great,” he said.
Becker’s territory ran from Moose Jaw to the Manitoba border.
He would soon go on to form Becker Oil Tools.
“When I came here, they wouldn’t sell me their tools, so I got a friend to rent one. Dowell eventually quit the tool business and I bought what tools they would sell me.”
The tools in question were primarily downhole packers, and eventually inflatable packers for horizontal wells. They were just becoming popular.
He eventually sold out to his friend and partner, Duane Ehrmantraut, in 1994.
“There were five of us. Duane was our computer expert. Our two wives were in the office,” he said.
Kelly Wheeler was a toolman, and the only steady employee they had. “We did very well – paid off the house, got enough to retire. We had 300 customers on our little computer. That’s all it would hold.”
The family had three girls, no boys. Three grandsons are now working in the oilfield. One is with Baker Tools, another works for Brad Bennett, and the third is a partner in Independent Pump Co.
Becker’s eyes light up when you ask him to shoot some pool on his table downstairs. He builds a lot of birdhouses in his spare time.
“I must have made 150 birdhouses since I retired.”
He golfs, or “tries to.” He doesn’t curl much anymore, but took part in the 50th anniversary of the Estevan Oilfield Technical Society Oilmen’s Bonspiel a few years ago.
“I was here when the OTS was formed. I was at the first oilmen’s bonspiel. I was the organizer for the entertainment at that time and later became president.”
Recounting the early days of the OTS, he said, “The NDP was going to nationalize the oil patch. Two guys came from Saskatoon’s university to explain it. They were lucky to get out of town alive. We had two lawyers as moderators and a police escort for the two at the end of their presentation. The oilpatch was nearly at a standstill. Most of the rigs moved to Alberta. The NDP was not popular in the oilpatch.”