Northwestern Pennsylvania is quietly celebrating its renaissance as the founding capital of America’s petroleum industry.
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It is no wonder the region has adopted Col. Drake as its mascot and plastered his image everywhere. His reputation’s incredible rehabilitation is Exhibit A in the case of Modest, Industrious People v. The Sometimes Far Too Cruel World.
WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT Bill Huber’s place in Plumer a mixed-breed gaggle of dogs yaps and spins madly in chain-link pens a dozen yards or so from the oilman’s unassuming house, as far from ostentatious as it is from San Francisco. The oilman appeared in a burgundy sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap, all splattered with random splotches of oil. From a distance, a walking Rorschach test. Nearby Huber’s son let arrows fly from a compound bow at foam resemblances of area wildlife, minus the pesky, sinewy legs God gave the living to run away. A wind storm a few days earlier had knocked out the electricity that runs the oil pumps—nature’s way of giving hardworking men some leisure time. The family is a mix of amiability and toughness. When Bill Huber recently collapsed and woke up confused in a hospital room, the first thing his son said to him was, “Hey, Pop, we redecorated your bedroom. How do you like it?” Huber sips his coffee and beams with pride for a full minute after telling the story.
The Hubers have been in the oil business for more than a hundred years. Now that his young granddaughters are beginning to show some interest, the family business could potentially survive another hundred. Not that it will be easy. “Pa Has Struck Ile” this is not. The dog kennel is a piecemeal moneymaking venture, a holdover from the none-too-distant bust years no one is sure won’t return. “We got by, but weren’t rolling in it,” Huber said as we rumbled over the makeshift bridge he built by pulling an old semi-truck bed over the creek. “We didn’t like answering the phone too much for a while because all the bills were behind.” Oil prices being what they are, call anytime you like these days. “Now, just a few years later, I got people coming around asking if I’m a millionaire,” Huber snorted good-naturedly. “I’m not. And I don’t think I ever will be although stranger things have happened. Not robbing Peter to pay Paul anymore isn’t exactly rich.” So far most of his recent windfall has so far gone to repairs.
It’s amazing how events thousands of miles away can affect the lives of a family wed to the rocky hills of Northwest Pennsylvania. As Huber walks me around a pump shack, he talked about how international titans, spurred by potential profits, have started to reexamine Northwest Pennsylvania to see if new technology—pressurized water, diagonal drilling, nuclear scanning, more powerful controlled explosives—might make large scale oil harvesting possible. All this in the land where the term moonlighter was originally coined to describe men who snuck illicit nitroglycerine through the countryside to explode stubborn rock shelves in wells—occasionally tripping over a branch and blowing themselves to smithereens. Times change. The Wall Street Journal reports a Canadian company recently bought the rights to 8,000 acres to dig what amounts to tractor-trailer-sized wells, confident the venture will yield millions of barrels. Huber himself has been approached about selling his leases. “Not a bad offer, but nothing I’d consider considering, if you know what I mean,” he said.
A belt rumbles out from the shack powering a great black wrought iron wheel, produced in Oil City back when it still had a foundry. Silver pump rods snake crazily away from this 15-horsepower center in all directions toward wells off in the woods. Most producers have shifted to single pump jacks over individual wells. No one even makes these rigs anymore. Huber would rather scour the woods and old yards for replacement parts than surrender tradition to modernity. “The new guys probably think this is more trouble than it’s worth, but that’s how I feel about their machines, too, so I guess we’re even,” he said.
AND THEN THERE’S THE MEDIA. As the only old-timer willing to talk to city slicker reporters, Huber has gone from an anonymous just-scraping-by old-school oilman to the closest thing Venango County has to a media celebrity. (As a reporter looking for a fresh angle, that no one told me this beforehand was a little frustrating, but what are you going to do? The guy is a blast to hang out with.) Huber peppers his chatter with references to past interviews. CBS. The Washington Post. Some or another foreign outlet. At one point, as we waded through a sea of gargantuan goldenrod to a distillation tank, Huber paused. He’d just remembered a German television crew that had called him hadn’t shown up. “Ah, if a bunch of confused Germans were wandering around town I probably woulda heard about it by now,” he reasoned and turned back to hacking his way through, a golden haze of pollen floating down behind him.
“I got reporters asking me left and right, ‘You mean there’s still oil left here?’” Huber said. “Yeah, more than you think. We might have to find new ways to get at it, but it is there.” Analysis shows Huber’s family has, over the course of a century, tapped only 20 percent of his leases’ total potential. With the market holding Huber just applied for his first new well permits since 1986. “It’s a long process nowadays. We have to get somebody from Fish & Game to come here to make sure I’m not disturbing any endangered animals while I’m trying to make a living. I never seen anything exotic out here, but they won’t take my word for it.” Huber laughed, shook his head. “In the old days when we found a rattlesnake we hit it over the head with a shovel and it didn’t bother anyone anymore. Now they have someone crawl into a hole to make friends with it, see what its house is like, make sure it’ll take me as a neighbor.”
After the tour Huber takes me to his preferred local hangout, the Plumer Country Store. Under a sign reading “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” the owner took an assembly-line approach to a long row of ham hoagies. Snapshots of hunters with recently slain turkeys, bucks, and other assorted wildlife are tacked up on a corkboard. “Was a time when you’d have to get here early for them sandwiches, ‘cause there’d always be a long line of oil workers hungry for them,” he said. “They’re coming back, slowly.” Along the walls are old sepia-tone pictures of grizzled men on horses or surrounded by a sea of derricks. Huber points out a picture of his great uncle. “He built oil rigs for everyone in the area until he got wise and built a few for his own family,” Huber marveled. “That set my life up long before I was born.”
This can, admittedly, seem like the land that time forgot. Pennsylvania oil country place brims with the kind of sturdy, unassuming diffidence it would not hurt the rest of the country to become reacquainted with. Later, I asked Huber if there was something the long line of reporters who’d come knocking on his door never asked that he wished they had. “Yeah: ‘How’s the trout fishing?’” he said. “You know we have the best trout fishing this side of the Mississippi? No one ever writes about that.”
DRAKE WELL MUSEUM DIRECTOR Barbara T. Zolli sashays around the picturesque grounds of her domain with the mischievous swagger of a 1930s screen siren. In a building housing vehicles from every era of oil transportation—a Cletrac “tank type tractor,” the producers of which promised to make “oilmen forget there was ever such a thing as mud”; the fourth-oldest steam engine in existence—Zolli produced a plastic apple. “Feed the horse,” she commanded, motioning for me to push the faux fruit into the faux mouth of a life-size replica of a wagon horse. The produce rumbles through the animal’s belly, plopping out of its posterior into a basket in moments and triggering the Mr. Ed theme song and a recorded soliloquy from the horse about how his grandfather “struggled through awful mud to get that crude oil” and the equine community’s surprise at the popularity of “those newfangled” horseless carriages.
Zolli beams. “When grandparents hear that theme song it’s going to spark memories for them that will lead to stories that will lead to a social teaching moment for their grandkids,” she explained. “It’s intergenerational, interactive, and multi-sensory—the future.” Zolli slapped a button on the wall. A voice warned that the truck across from the horse was carrying nitroglycerine and could blow up any minute. “When kids hear that, they suspend disbelief and take a few steps back,” Zolli enthused. Kaboom! goes the loudspeaker. A flashing red light blares out from under the chaise. A kid across the room yelps, then gleefully giggles. Zolli raises her eyebrows, the universal symbol of See? What did I say?
The Drake Well Museum, in other words, is undergoing a significant renovation, and Zolli is clearly relishing the opportunity to shake things up. “The original exhibits were conceived in a time when people were evidently willing to read a lot of text and no one thought any children would ever come,” she sighed. These originals are being reworked. Dioramas will be motorized dioramas, fiber optics employed. “Maybe it seems like we’re jumping on the edu-tainment bandwagon, but shorter attention spans do make it a challenge to capture the attention of younger generations,” Zolli said. “At the same time, we’re trying to make sure we don’t get so high-tech and fluffy that older generations don’t feel like we’re telling their story anymore.” As an example of the low-tech end, Zolli taps on a glass case containing Col. Drake’s boar-hair travel toothbrush. “What I like about this is it makes him more human, more real,” she said. The nearby mannequin of Drake gave nothing up, staring straight ahead, the presumably pearly whites gated behind plastic—an oil byproduct—lips.
The museum now boasts a “comedic history show” complete with an apocalyptic preacher and “close-proximity pyrotechnics” powerful enough to scare the bejesus out of the occasional unwitting hunter or hiker in the nearby woods. Meanwhile, to intentionally scare the bejesus out of paid attendees, the museum plans to soon delve into Peak Oil theories, which suggest oil production is in terminal decline and a society based on it is sure to break down, as well as environmental issues. “We don’t apologize for the oil industry,” Zolli said. “It’s a historical fact. But we do need to give the public a glimpse at the negative parts of that history so we can help wake up the community to what we’re facing. There’s a legitimate concern that the population, like lemmings, will leap for the first alternative and trade one demon for another. I’d rather encourage thought toward a real solution.”
THE TECHNOLOGY AND EDU-TAINMENT surely is amusing enough. It is the relics, however, and the replicas of relics, that most dramatically tell the story of the earth-shaking events that took place here, from the board-for-board duplicate of Drake’s well, a small structure in which two men unwittingly turned the world on its head, to the ever bigger rigs from each early exploration era embodying the ceaseless ingenuity of human beings building upon collective knowledge, recoiling from stasis and apathy. “If you’re here on a spring morning, you’ll think you’ve just stepped into Jurassic Park,” Zolli said over the whine and creak of one of the operational replicas grumbling to life. She encourages children winded from a couple minutes’ bouncing on the spring pole pump to imagine doing it for 14 hours a day. They clearly cannot visualize it.
In his history of the area, Oil Creek…The Beginning, Neil McElwee wrote, “Some men along Oil Creek had nothing, nothing but a belief in the future of petroleum and their ability to participate somehow in its growth.” Ironically, it is some of the less exciting exhibits at the Drake Well Museum that summon these inspirational ghosts most fully. In 1914 the Daughters of the American Revolution chose a 65-ton native sandstone boulder to mark the spot upon which Drake’s “great discovery inaugurated the petroleum industry,” surrounded by hemlock, black-eyed susans and rhododendrons. History weighs heavily here, both physically and metaphorically.
Back at the Venango Museum I had dropped a quarter in one of those boardwalk fortune-telling machines. The rubber gypsy had robotically intoned the necessity of choosing a side, of deciding whether I believed what began here fell into the category of black gold or black magic. The fortune read: “If a person takes no thought about what is distant he will find sorrow near at hand.” Thus it was settled. In front of the Drake memorial I threw my lot in with the black golders. But if there’s magic to be had, I hope it conjures tourists and “money, money everywhere” for the people of this proud, tough-luck region again. They’ve earned it many times over, even if the credit or thanks for their contributions has lately been less than forthcoming.
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