Feature

Oil City Is Well Again

Northwestern Pennsylvania is quietly celebrating its renaissance as the founding capital of America's petroleum industry.

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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THE GRANDLY IMPOSING Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry in downtown Oil City, Pennsylvania, was abuzz with preparations for its production of Oil on the Brain, a play designed--much like the museum itself--to hype the area's historical claim to fame as the birthplace of the oil industry. One hundred fifty years ago the world's first commercial oil well was drilled not 15 miles north of here in Titusville, igniting an economic and cultural boom destined to reverberate the world over. When it first came on line the well produced more oil than the world had hitherto seen in any one place: 20 barrels a day.

"Before I enlisted, that crazy Connecticut Yankee named Col. Edwin Drake started it all off in August of 1859 by hiring that salt well driller from Tarentum--Uncle Billy Smith," the character Patrick Boyle, a returning Union soldier circa 1865, muses to the tune of a flute rendition of "When Johnny Comes Marchin' Home" during the play's opening monologue. "He convinced Uncle Billy to follow him to Titusville and try and drill for oil. Everybody in these parts thought he was plum crazy. But nobody's laughing at him now. Everybody's trying to get in on the action and the money! You know what they say? Oil, oil in the air and money, money everywhere!"

It isn't difficult to see why Oil City ("a special blend of people," according to its official website) and the region at large prefer to hearken back to days of glory and consequence. Or, for that matter, why, despite such unabashed civic pride, the permanent exhibit at the Venango Museum is entitled "Black Gold or Black Magic?" Asked how visitors typically answered the query, the museum's executive director, Betsy Kellner, admitted they were "split about down the middle." Doubtless this is at least partially because the museum places displays breathlessly detailing "The Price of Dependence" (oil spills, embargos, war, rationing), American overconsumption, and environmental devastation (assemblage of potential modes of alternative, oil-free transportation: cross-country skis, snowshoes, and a Native American canoe) alongside those exalting the fascinating local heritage and global oil-fueled material progress. (a 20-minute spoof of the film Clueless entitled Fuel-less, in which a spoiled high school girl loses all oil-based products--no make-up or aspirin, car won't start, closet full of burlap sacks--until she takes the time to appreciate "fractional distillation" (!) and, regains her oil-filled life.)

Still, there is clearly more at work here than the sway of a museum exhibit or even the general unpopularity of the oil business in this increasingly populist moment. Setting aside the requisite supply-and-demand fueled lulls and dried-up fields that transmogrified thriving metropolises into ghost towns virtually overnight, the oil industry propelled and sustained the good life in these hardscrabble hills from the day Col. Drake first struck oil (August 27, 1859) until the mid-1970s, when Pennzoil relocated its headquarters to Texas, land of the gushers. Wolf's Head and U.S. Steel soon followed, leaving Quaker State in its glass digs downtown as the last shining hope until a "transformational" CEO decided 60 years was long enough to be in one place and left for the Lone Star State in 1995.

The New York Times thought that last a seminal enough event to warrant a story headlined "Inside Oil City, Hope Runs Dry," which somehow failed to raise spirits around town. The population plummeted. Blight spread like gray, untended weeds composed of crumbling concrete. A few of the hulking, rusting tanks of a once-bustling Pennzoil refinery (originally called Germania until a certain chilling of our Deutschland relations during the 1940s made the name untenable) stand idle today, like mocking ghosts in an era when President George W. Bush bemoans our lack of refineries as a national security issue. What occurred here, in sum, was something akin to the popular, exuberant 1865 C. Archer song, "Pa Has Struck Ile"--only in tragic reverse:

I once was unknown by the happy and gay,
And the friends that I sought did all turn away
Our dwelling was plain and simple our fare
And nothing inviting of course could be there.
But now what a change! Our house is so grand,
Not one is so fine throughout the whole land,
And we can now live in the very best style,
And it's simply because my pa has struck ile.

An interesting thing happened on the way to $4-a-gallon gasoline and $140-a-barrel oil, though: Local independent oil producers began to make money again in a tight market. The media showed up. Americans suddenly obsessed with domestic oil production started making pilgrimages to the area in larger numbers. Words like renaissance and revival slowly moved from airy abstractness into firmer reality. It was as if the speech James Earl Jones gave at the end of Field of Dreams had been adapted for a sequel, Oil Field of Dreams: "The one constant all the years has been [oil]. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again but [oil] has marked the time. This [oil]field…is part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again. People will most definitely come."

Perhaps sensing that the illumination/vindication of its past could hold the key to its future prominence, the region has largely embraced this Jonesian spirit. The Franklin High School Black Night Band, for example, has cut a CD, Music of the Oil Boom, which includes "American Petroleum Polka" (1864), "Crazy on Oil" (1865), and "Petroleum Court Dance" (1865). The Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad offers a two-and-a-half-hour narrated tour, occasional interactive murder mystery productions, and the chance to "mail a postcard from the only operating Railway Post Office car in the country." An Oil City chain hotel renamed itself The Arlington after a long since demolished establishment where oil barons used to meet and negotiate.

The Oil Region Alliance, a business and tourism development group housed in the National Transit Building, former home to both John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company and Ralph Nader's Institute for Civic Renewal -- and a veritable beehive of savvy PR, has been busy. It has erected historical markers, exported traveling photo exhibits and museum kits, advertised the 60 miles of scenic bike paths through lush wilderness once leveled by ill-fated boomtowns and no-luck wells, refurbished "muckraker" Ida Tarbell's house, and organized a multitude of cultural events for the yearlong Oil 150 ("Celebrating the Story--Progress From Petroleum"). Recently the organization built a huge reproduction of a derrick (the iconic wooden towers over oil wells) at the entrance of Titusville--lit by solar power!

Making the most of whatever circumstances you find yourself in is, of course, a profoundly American approach to a problem, and the Oil Region Alliance is fairly adept at turning any negative into a positive. "The lack of economic development up until now froze a lot of the area in time," Marilyn Black, the Alliance's vice president of heritage development, related proudly. "Not much was torn down to make way for the new, so we have basically every form of Victorian architecture, which is great."

OIL-AS-MAGICAL-SALVE has precedent in Pennsylvania. Samuel Kier, creator of the process whereby crude oil could be refined into kerosene, took his cue from Seneca Indians and originally tried to sell the thick substance contaminating his salt wells as a cure-all in 50-cent bottles, after a slick fire deterred him from continuing to dump it in a canal. Among the ailments he claimed a swig of oil could cure were rheumatism, gout, asthma, "obstinate eruptions of the skin," diarrhea, cholera, deafness, and "all that class of disease in which ALTERNATIVE OR PURIFYING MEDICINES are indicated." Alas, the product never took off for what should be obvious reasons, hint: stick to antibiotics for your cholera--but Kier's refining precipitated the search for large quantities of crude oil that would in the not-too-distant future result in a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune writing on September 13, 1859, "The excitement attendant on the discovery of this vast source of oil was fully equal to what I ever saw in California when a large lump of gold was accidentally turned out."

Oil City mayor Sonja Hawkins--a whip-smart, determined transplant to the area from Alaska--rejects this oft-used Gold Rush analogy. She sees the region's oil heritage much more than simply something to lure tourists or even new prospectors. "This was the Silicon Valley of its day," Hawkins explained. "We're a town born of creative risk-takers who instinctively knew forward-looking innovators could prosper and distinguish themselves here. That is our heritage as much as what was under the ground here. We have to tap back into that underlying culture to lift us back up."

Indeed, Oil City continues to have the energy of a city that evolved with a giddy haphazardness around an unexpected boom. A program to bring artists and traditional craftsmen to town with promises of cheap studio space and low cost of living has been popular, the accompanying cafes and niche stores moving into storefronts long gathering dust. "People are starting to buy into the idea that there could be a next step for the community," Hawkins said. "For a long time it was really hard to get people to move beyond the woe is me storyline. It felt like a funeral shroud was hanging over the whole town sometimes. Oil can be part of the wave we ride to the future, but it can't be the whole wave. And what happens here does matter. If we don't fight to revive our tiny communities we'll collectively lose a lot more than Oil City. We'll lose an essential part of the American character."

It's worth noting that Col. Drake died ill and broke, a beaten man, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1880. A respected journalist of the day, John McLaurin, wrote of savagely of Drake, "Had he possessed a particle of the prophetic instinct, had he grasped the magnitude of the issues at stake, had he appreciated the importance of petroleum as a commercial product, had he been able to see an inch beyond his nose, he would have gone forth that morning and become Master of the Oil country. The world was all before him and he did not move a peg! He pumped the well serenely, told funny stories and secured not one foot of ground."

Yet 22 years after his passing Col. Drake was reinterred, along with his wife, in Titusville's Woodlawn Cemetery. They lie at the foot of a massive statue straight out of Greek-myth central casting, a figure hammering into a stone flanked by several great stone tablets which, in addition to bestowing upon Drake the honorific "founder of the petroleum industry, friend of man," relate the following: "Called by circumstance to the solution of a mining problem, he triumphantly vindicated American skill and near this spot laid the foundation of an industry that has enriched the state, benefited mankind, stimulated the mechanical arts, enlarged the pharmacopeia and has attained worldwide proportions."

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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