Pictured: Russell Kile, owner/operator of Maranatha Drilling & Pump Service and one of his rig drill bits. (Photo: Vane)/
I’d never heard of Maranatha Drilling & Pump Service until I conducted an interview with Maranatha’s owner and operator, Russell Kile. After the interview I wondered how this could be, considering Kile’s business is unique to Mono County (his only other competitor operates out of Inyo County, in Bishop). Not to mention I’d driven many times past the Maranatha headquarters and Kile’s home, located near milepost 31 on Route 6 just outside of Benton, and I’d often seen Kile’s handiwork in the hangars at Mammoth Yosemite Airport, anchored in holes dug by Maranatha Drilling.
Maranatha Drilling & Pump Service not only digs holes, whether for airplane hangars or prospective miners, but also extracts rock core samples, and drills water wells for the residents of Mono and Inyo counties. As a city girl, I’d never considered how vital a service well drilling might be. I didn’t know there was much of a need for water wells at all. But with a little research I soon discovered that, according to Empire State Water Well Drillers Association, about 40 million Americans receive their water from individual home wells. Add to that the fact that Russell Kile is a one man operation, a small businessman drilling for water in a region whose water wars linger on into the present day, and I was intrigued. What insights might Kile offer not only into the life of a small business owner in Mono County, but also into an industry dependent on a rapidly depleting national resource?
I met with Kile at his home on a cold, clear Monday, and proceeded to walk a small portion of his 40 acre property, which is covered in a collection of old cars, trailers, bikes, drill parts, core samples, and much more, and talked for some 2 hours about everything from his adopted African children, to the unique challenges in his line of work.
Sheet: What’s the history of your business here in Mono County?
R:First of all I’ve been here for approximately 30 years. I’ve been in business since 1972, when I formed a partnership with my father and my brother. But my grandfather came from Oklahoma, probably in the 1880s, or sometime when they drove covered wagons, to Branson, Colorado and made a homestead. That’s where my father was born, and he and almost all my uncles were involved with water well drilling. I actually was on a drill rig probably before I could think.
For a water well drilling machine, my grandfather used to go and find the best tree in the community for the tower. That’s how his equipment was made, with a good tree and a pulley at the top, and different kinds of mechanisms to lift it up and down in the early days.
S: So it’s a long legacy.
R: We’ve been at it a minimum of 5 generations, in the sense that my grandfather, my father, myself, my kids, and even my grandkids have now been out actually helping me adjust controls and drill wells on site.
S: How did your family come to be in Benton?
R: In 1951 my father took an old wooden tower drill rig and made it into steel, and he moved it to California and started a business in Elk Grove with his brothers. But family things happened, and their ability to actually perform business, generally speaking, was not good. So those partnerships dissolved over the years, and probably one of the most significant things that affected the relationship of my father with his brothers was that one day my cousin was helping my father on an application, and my cousin got his hand cut off [Kile indicated a crescent from the first finger to the bottom of his palm], I think it was all of his fingers at the first. Really this happened because of an error by the operator of the equipment, and his youngness of putting his hand in the wrong place. But that contributed to a lot of bad feelings between the brothers
Then my dad for several years got involved with working for other people drilling wells as an employee, til in 1972 he went out and put his house trailer up for collateral for a loan to get a brand new drill rig, and gave my brother and I the opportunity to be in a partnership. It was perfect timing for me, because I’d just graduated from the American River College in Sacramento.
S: But it’s just you now, right?
R: Well the first split was between my father and my brother, which created a new partnership, which created Maranatha drilling, and that was my brother and myself. Me and my brother were rather successful, in the sense that at the end of the day we had more than I ever imagined to have. And then there was a division between my brother and myself, so I’ve had the business probably about 10-15 years now as a self proprietor.
S: What’s the story behind the company name?
R: The business had the name changed, I think it was in 1982, from Kile’s Water Well Drilling to Maranatha Drilling. ‘Maranatha,’ which means ‘Jesus is coming soon, be ready,’ from the King James bible. ‘Maranatha’ is also one of the few words in the English language that has 4 a’s.
S: I take it that spirituality is a large part of your life?
R: I love to spend a lot of time in prayer. I’m probably part of a rare number of humans that ever decided that the most important thing I could do is to give God my very best time.
S: So how is your business doing out here? I know you mentioned having to cut back on your staff. Are you still finding consistent work?
R: I have more work than I can possibly do, because I have done work for so many years that I have customers that say ‘I ain’t gonna let nobody drill a water well on my property, cause I know all the horror stories. I will wait for you.’ So I got people that have waited over a year. And that’s a unique place to be, to have people that would wait that long for you. God’s put me in that unique place.
But in the last year, I have began to say to my customers, ‘Life stress has got to a level that’s too high for me, personally.’ And that’s something a lot of other business people are saying. And they’re committing suicide; my neighbor [Andy Cunningham] committed suicide. He got a rope and jumped off and hung himself about 2 years ago. He had that 80 acres of land right there, next to this one. And then he bought another 40 acres, with the junkyard. He was a construction person, he actually owned a back hoe excavating company. He had all his equipment paid for, he had thousands and thousands of dollars in the bank, and decided life stress was too high.
I am proposing in my life that God doesn’t have an interest in me committing suicide, but I think it’s important to say that almost every businessman that I’ve been associated with has his own personal suicide plan. That’s pretty serious. Married, non-married. I think what’s happening with the American society is that there’s this idea that we’ve got to work every day, we have to perform, and there’s no safety valve to be able to say, my life stress is at an 8, I need to reduce it. I need to reduce it by doing nothing; I need to lay down and quit, until my life scale goes back up again.
S: What do you think will happen to your business? Are you going to pass it on?
R:I’m finding that to be one of the hardest stresses on business people. Nowadays, because of business stress, my children are looking at me and saying, what you’re doing is impossible. And not only that, my sons Matthew and Caleb, and my daughter Tanya, all 3 put their arms around my shoulders and said, ‘Dad, you’re trying to do the impossible. I could never do that. The government’s out to take you away as a small business person.’ And I said to them, my debt is too high, the government has caused my debt to be too high, and the government is directly causing most business people to be in debt to a level that they have never had to face. And that’s what’s pushing people over to the suicide, and the radical kinds of things.
S: Tell me about your kids.
R: I have 2 boys and 2 girls that are my natural kids, and then I’ve got a boy and a girl that’s adopted in Africa. Their father and mother were killed by demons. In Africa that happens a lot of times, cause demons like to kill people, that’s their ultimate goal, essentially.
People always want me to find water in Africa. I even had, in Africa, a man that wanted to trade his wife to me, and she was a very beautiful wife, and all of her kids were standing there, watching while the husband was willing to give away his wife for the information I’ve got in my brain on how to drill a water well.
S: That is crazy.
R: Yeah, and then another guy in another country wanted to give away his sister if I would just teach him how to drill water wells. But I don’t drill water wells in Africa. I haven’t. I’ve sponsored them historically to be drilled in Africa, but actually drilling water wells in Africa gets people killed.
Say I want to do the grandest thing in the world: I want to go to Africa, where people have to haul water 5 miles, cause I know a village of over 5,000 people, and they walk 5 miles to get water. All their drinking water is carried by kids and women. But in that village, if I would have created water there for the wrong group of people, another group of people would go kill them and take the water away.
S: Have you ever run into any similar issues here with the LADWP?
R: I like Water and Power people. I like ‘em a lot, and I get in trouble for that, sometimes. Before they started pumping any water, what happened? Number 1, it all flowed into the [Owens] lake. That’s the first thing. So it all wasted in the sense of human use.
S: So what kinds of jobs do you do in the area? What equipment do you use?
R: I use a drill rig, which I drive around from site to site. When I first saw the rig, it was huge. It doesn’t look that huge anymore.
S: How tall is it?
R:It’s about 27 feet from the ground up to the top, so it’s less than a telephone pole. It weighs 30 tons. It can drill 5,000 feet. I’ve had it down 1,000 feet a couple times. I’ve done a lot of things with it: I’ve done mining exploration with it, bore a hole and you take all of the stuff out of the hole and they analyze it for gold and silver and other metals. Then the other large amount of work I’ve done is what’s called core samples. They’re used as masonry products for fancy, expensive housings. They make carvings out of those, they make columns, they do all kinds of things. So I cut over 2,000 feet of that, out of Bishop. Then I’ve cut samples from a lot of different places.
S: How exactly do you dig a water well? Are there any particular challenges to the process?
R: Generally our company, myself, would never suggest anyone drilling less than 100 feet, and we’ve never let any water in above 50 feet. And we can’t put our pumps any closer than 20 foot to the bottom, just for future possible sediments.
When I drill a well, I’m gonna drill a well that has 100 gallons a minute for someone that wants 50 gallons a minute. I’m always making more water than the person will ever use in their lifetime. And that’s one of the reasons our company is set aside different than a lot of the others. Especially over in Fish Lake Valley, I’ve been on properties that have 3 or 4 wells, cause the driller wants to come back and re-drill you a new well every time. I’m the opposite of that: I’m going to drill it for your lifetime, and your kids’ lifetimes, and you’re gonna have twice as much water as you need. That’s my philosophy for drilling holes, and it works.
S: Have you ever had any close calls on the job?
R: I have all my fingers, I have all my toes, my arms. It’s not that way historically, for most drilling people. And historically they used to use a bucket with a cable on it, going up and down, pounding, and it was so hard, the work, that most drillers were alcoholics. Because the stress level of the work was so high that there was no other way to deal with normal everyday.
And I was an alcoholic. I remember when I was about 17 years old I changed my license so I was 21, so I could buy all I wanted after that. I was an alcoholic, I had done everything alcoholics do, foolish things. But, one day, after I had my oldest son Matthew, I was talking to God about it—I talk to God a lot about things—and I said, ‘God, what do you think?’, and He says, ‘Today you said something pretty foolish, and it was related to alcohol.’ And I said, ‘Okay, what do you want?’ And He said, ‘Russell, I think the best is, no more.’ I was 21, 22 years old, and I haven’t had a drink since then, except one time I was in Africa, and they served a juice to the pastors, and it was actually wine.
S: I assume you’ve dug some wells on your own property.
R: That windmill is where my primary water source is, and finally the pump had no more water, this year.
S: Do you think that’s because of our drought year last year?
R: No, it’s because of God saying, I’m gonna get California’s attention. Water is getting to be more and more of an issue. There’s less water hitting the ground. Call it a plague. The water doesn’t get down anymore, it doesn’t get down like it used to. So the water level here is dropping. 35 to 40 years ago, digging out by that fencepost over there you’d hit groundwater. And right now I have an old well that’s 25 feet deep and it’s completely dry, and when I moved here it was about 10, 15 feet. I have 2 wells, and they’re both dry. No water.