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New London Texas School Explosion

Roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield rushed to New London school after the March 18, 1937, explosion – and searched for survivors throughout the night. Photo courtesy New London Museum.

At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, with just minutes left in the school day and more than 500 students and teachers inside the building, a natural gas explosion leveled most of an East Texas school.

Hundreds died at New London High School in Rusk County after odorless natural gas leaked into the basement and ignited.

The force of the explosion was felt even four miles away. Parents, many of them roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield, rushed to the school.

Despite immediate rescue efforts, 298 died, most from grades 5 to 11 (dozens more later died of injuries). They are remembered today at New London School Disaster.

After an investigation, the cause of the school explosion was found to be an electric wood-shop sander that sparked unscented gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school.

“The school was newly built in the 1930s for close to $1 million and, from its inception, bought natural gas from Union Gas to supply its energy needs,” notes History.com. “The school’s natural gas bill averaged about $300 a month.”

In early 1937 the school board canceled its contract with Union Gas to save money and tapped into a pipeline of residue gas (also called casinghead gas) from Parade Gasoline Company, according to historian James Cornell. “This practice – while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies – was widespread in the area,” he notes in The Great International Disaster Book. “The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off.”

Walter Cronkite reaches Scene

A young man working for United Press in Dallas, Walter Cronkite, was among the first reporters to reach the scene of the disaster south of Kilgore, between Tyler and Longview. It was dark and raining.

“He got his first inkling of how bad the incident was when he saw a large number of cars lined up outside the funeral home in Tyler,” notes one local historian. At the scene, floodlights cast long shadows.

New London Texas School Explosion

The explosion hurled a concrete slab 200 feet onto a 1936 Chevrolet. Rusk County, Texas, had one of the richest rural school districts in the United States. On March 18 students were preparing for the next day’s Inter-scholastic meet in Henderson. Photos courtesy New London Museum.

“We hurried on to New London,” Cronkite writes in his book, A Reporter’s Life. “We reached it just at dusk. Huge floodlights from the oilfields illuminated a great pile of rubble at which men and women tore with their bare hands. Many were workers from the oilfields…”

Decades later, Cronkite will add, “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”

David M. Brown, author of Gone at 3:17, describes the “sad irony” of how the East Texas oil boom financed building the wealthiest rural school in the nation in 1934 – and the faulty heating system that permitted raw gas to accumulate beneath it.

According to Brown, it was partly the result of school officials making a bad decision. To save money on heating the school building, the trustees had authorized workers to tap into a pipeline carrying “waste” natural gas produced by a gasoline refinery.

“The resulting explosion that laid waste to a town’s future,” he concludes in his book Gone at 3:17, the Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History. 

Following the disaster, a temporary morgue was set up near the school as well as nearby Overton and Henderson, notes Robert Hilliard, a volunteer for the New London Texas School Explosion Museum.

“Many burials were made in the local Pleasant Hill cemetery that to this day, still symbolize the great loss that families endured, adds Hilliard, who maintains the museum’s website.

“Many of the grave sites display porcelain pictures of the victims,” he says. “Marbles that were once played with were pushed into the cement border outlining the graves.”

Making Natural Gas Safer

As a result of the disaster, Texas passed laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to give early warning of a gas leak. Other states quickly followed.

New London Texas School Explosion

A granite cenotaph was dedicated in 1939 to the more than 300 students and teachers who perished.

Today, the rotten-egg smell associated with natural gas is Mercaptan, the odorant added to provide early warning of any leak.

New London’s community museum, located across the highway from the school site, began in 1992 thanks to years of work by its founder and first curator, Mollie Ward, who was 10 when she survived the explosion.

Ward noted in a 2001 interview that among the museum’s exhibits was a blackboard found in the rubble.

“Sometime in the night a worker found a blackboard that had been on the wall that read ‘Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing,'” said Ward, who spent years helping start a former students association that reunited survivors of the New London explosion.

New London Texas School Explosion

The New London Museum includes extensive personal accounts of the tragedy taken from newspaper articles and personal interviews. Considered state-of-the-art for its time, the school housed grades K-11.

New London Texas School Explosion

One museum exhibit is a recovered blackboard that reads: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing.”

Near the museum is a 32-foot-high granite cenotaph dedicated in 1939. In December 1938, a contract for building a monument was awarded to the Premier Granite Quarries of Llano, Texas. Donald Nelson of Dallas was appointed designing and supervising architect for the project.

After a competition in which seven Texas sculptors submitted preliminary models, Herring Coe of Beaumont was awarded the task of making the model for the sculptural block at the top.

A 20-ton sculptured block of Texas granite – supported by two monolithic granite columns – depicts twelve life-size figures, representing children coming to school, bringing gifts and handing in homework to two teachers.

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AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.

 

Oil Exchanges

The Oil City, Pennsylvania, Oil Exchange incorporated in 1874. In 1877, it was the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America, behind New York and San Francisco.

In a sign of the growing  power of John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company brings an end to Pennsylvania’s highly speculative oil trading markets.

On January 23, 1895, the Standard Oil purchasing agency in Oil City notifies independent oil producers it will only buy their oil at a price “as high as the markets of the world will justify” – and not necessarily “the price bid on the oil exchange for certificate oil.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

Call them oilfield detectives, night riders of the hemlocks, or simply oil scouts. These early oil and gas well investigators separated fact from fiction.

oil scouts

Oil scouts like Justus McMullen often braved harsh winters (and sometimes armed guards) to visit well sites. Their intelligence debunked rumors and “demystified” reports about oil wells producing in early oil fields.

In the hard winter of 1888, famed 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen, succumbs to pneumonia – contracted while scouting production data from the Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company’s well at Cannonsburg.

McMullen, publisher of the Bradford, Pennsylvania, “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a reliable oil field detective. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Founded in 1934, the Dallas Petroleum Club witnessed the city becoming a financial center for the Texas petroleum industry, notes author Nina P. Flournoy.

The historic club recently published her book to mark its 80th anniversary.

Dallas-based Flournoy’s book, The Lions Among Us: Celebrating 80 Years of The Dallas Petroleum Club describes how the club grew out of 1930s East Texas discoveries that ignited the Texas oil and natural gas industry. Founded in 1934, the club witnessed the city becoming a financial center for the Texas industry.

The club was organized just four years after Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner had discovered the East Texas oilfield near Kilgore, about 120 miles to the east. Read more about Joiner, “Doc ” Lloyd and Haroldson Lafayette Hunt in H.L. Hunt and the East Texas Oilfield. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas reveals the Spindletop oilfield, which will produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.

spindletop

Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas, tells the story of a 1901 oil discovery that created the modern petroleum industry – and made America a world power.

spindletop

The Beaumont, Texas, museum includes 15 buildings of exhibits to educate visitors.

On January 1, 1901, if you asked residents of Beaumont, Texas, what news interested them, they would have said the Galveston Hurricane of September 8 (the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history), or the dawning of a new century.

However, as a southeastern Texas petroleum museum explains, if you asked them after January 10, 1901 – they would have said the great oil gusher on Spindletop Hill.

The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont tells the story of the Spindletop well, a discovery that created the greatest oil boom in America – exceeding the nation’s first oil discovery well in 1859 in Pennsylvania.

Just as consumer demand for kerosene for lamps was declining in favor of electricity, Americans would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product: gasoline. Within a few decades, new oil companies will pump gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Stella Dysart spent decades fruitlessly searching for oil in New Mexico. In 1955, a radioactive uranium sample from one of her dry holes made her very rich.

uranium

Life magazine featured Stella Dysart in front of a drilling rig in 1955, soon after making a fortune from uranium after three decades as of failure in petroleum drilling ventures.

In the end, it was the uranium – not petroleum – that made her a wealthy woman.

A sometimes desperate promoter of New Mexico oil drilling ventures for more than 30 years, she once served time for fraud.

But in 1955, Mrs. Dysart  found that she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore.

Born in 1878 in Slater, Missouri, Dysart moved to New Mexico, where she got into the petroleum and real estate business in 1923.

She ultimately acquired a reported 150,000 acres in the remote Ambrosia Lake area 100 miles west of Albuquerque, on the southern edge of the oil-rich San Juan Basin.

Dysart established the New Mexico Oil Properties Association and the Dysart Oil Company.

The ventures and other investment schemes would leave her broke, notes John Masters in his 2004 book, Secret Riches: Adventures of an Unreformed Oilman, where he describes her as “a woman who drilled dry holes, peddled worthless parcels of land to thousands of dirt-poor investors, and went to jail for one of her crooked deals.”

Dysart subdivided her properties and subdivided again, selling one-eighth acre leases and oil royalties as small as one-six thousandth to investors.

She drilled nothing but dry holes for years and years. Then it got worse.

A 1937 Workmen’s Compensation Act judgment against Dysart’s New Mexico Oil Properties Association bankrupted the company, compelling sale of its equipment, “sold as it now lies on the ground near Ambrosia Lake.”

Two years later, it got worse again. Dysart and five Dysart Oil Company co-defendants were charged with 60 counts of conspiracy, grand theft and violation of the corporate securities (act) in 1939.

All were convicted and all did time. Dysart served 15 months in the county jail before being released on probation in March 1941.

New Mexico Uranium

By 1952, 74-year-old Dysart was broke and $25,000 in debt when she met uranium prospector Louis Lothman.

In 1955, Lothman examined cuttings from a Dysart dry hole in McKinley County – and got impressive Geiger counter readings. He drilled more test wells, which confirmed the result.

Dysart owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore.

She was 78 years old when the December 10, 1955, Life magazine featured her picture captioned, “Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”

Praised for her success, her fraudulent petroleum deals in the past, Dysart died in 1966 in Albuquerque at age 88. Secret Riches author John Masters explains that “there must be a little more to her story, but as someone said of Truth – ‘it lies hidden in a crooked well.'”

More New Mexico petroleum history can be found in Farmington, including the exhibit “From Dinosaurs to Drill Bits” at the Farmington Museum.

The New Mexico Oil & Gas Association provides industry news and statistics. Learn about the state’s massive Hobbs oil field of the late 1920s in New Mexico Oil Discovery.

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Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele of Venango County, Pennsylvania

The lucky life of John Washington Steele started on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant.

Johnny Steele – who one day will become famous as “Coal Oil Johnny” – was adopted along with his sister, Permelia.

The McClintocks brought them home to their farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Fifteen years later, the petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery at nearby Titusville – America’s first commercial oil well – made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties.

When Mrs. McClintock died in a kitchen fire in 1864, she left the money to her only surviving child, Johnny. At age 20, he inherited $24,500.

Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele will earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported.

“In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”

Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of  his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:

I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.‎

Coal Oil Johnny

“Coal Oil Johnny” owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. Illustration from October 8, 2010, article in the Atlantic magazine.

Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.

In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story.

“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 8 feature story.

“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age – and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”

Coal Oil Johnny

The refurbished boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny” today stands near Oil Creek State Park’s historic (and operating) train station north of Rouseville, Pennsylvania.

For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.

It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”

“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” added the article.

“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded.

“Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”

Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele died in Nebraska in 1920.

John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.

On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing  McClintock No. 1 oil well.

“This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”

Published in 1902, Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was digitized in 2007 and now is a free Google Ebook.

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Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.

 

pennsylvania natural gas

A marker on Route 22 at Murrysville, Pennsylvania, commemorates the Haymaker brother’s historic natural gas well of 1878.

In 1878, the Haymaker brothers discovered a Pennsylvania natural gas field near Pittsburgh – and laid the foundation for many modern petroleum companies..

Like many young men of their time, Michael Haymaker and his younger brother Obediah had left their Westmoreland County farm to seek their fortunes in Pennsylvania’s booming petroleum industry.

The brothers first found work as drillers for oilman Israel Painter, who had brought in wells a few miles north of Oil City in Venango County – not far from Edwin L. Drake’s famous 1859 discovery less than 20 years earlier. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Soon after the Civil War, one of America’s earliest oil booms arrived at a small hill west of Titioute, Pennsylvania. Wooden derricks replaced trees on Triumph Hill.

triumph hill oil

A circa 1870s photograph of Triumph Hill near Titioute, Pennsylvania, by Frank Robbins of Oil City. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Formerly quiet Pennsylvania hillsides of hemlock woods vanished in the fall of 1866 when oil fever came to Triumph Hill. The oil industry was barely seven years old.

Just 15 miles east of the Edwin Drake’s famous 1859 Oil Creek well at Titusvile, the October 4, 1866, Triumph Hill discovery sparked a rush of uncontrolled development.

Although they would not last, notorious boom towns sprang up at Gordon Run and Daniels Run west of Tidioute on Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River. Like the earlier discoveries at Titusville, Rouseville and Pithole Creek, wooden derricks replaced hillside trees.

Tidioute (pronounced tiddy-oot) was joined by the roughneck-filled towns of Triumph and Babylon with “sports, strumpets and plug-uglies, who stole, gambled, caroused and did their best to break all the commandments at once.”

Fresh from the oilfield at Pithole 25 miles southwest, Ben Hogan, the self proclaimed “Wickedest Man in the World,” operated a bawdy house on the Triumph hillside.

Despite growing recognition that crowded drilling reduced reservoir pressures and production, the bonanza prompted a frenzy of drilling as investors tried to cash in on the discovery before the oil ran out.

By the summer of 1867, Triumph Hill was producing 2,000 barrels of oil a day. The flood of oil bought lower prices – an early example of the petroleum industry’s boom and bust cycles.

Photographer Frank Robbins of Oil City published stereograph images of Triumph Hill, declaring it to be “the most magnificent oil belt (as oil men call a strip of producing land) ever yet discovered. On this belt which is but two miles long, and less than one mile wide – were over 180 producing wells, nearly every one of which was in operation at once.”

Robbins, who moved his studio to Bradford 1879 when that region was on its way to becoming “America’s first billion dollar oilfield,” also printed postcards for sale to tourists.

triumph oil oil

An image from the 1903 edition of “Sketches in Crude-Oil; some accidents and incidents of the petroleum development in all parts of the globe” by James McLaurin.

“Triumph Hill turned out as much money to the acre as any spot in Oildom,” noted James McLaurin in his 1896 book “Sketches in Crude-Oil; some accidents and incidents of the petroleum development in all parts of the globe.”

Many of the hill’s wells averaged 25 barrels of oil a day, McLaurin reported, adding that “the sand was the thickest – often ninety to one hundred and ten feet – and the purest the oil region afforded.”

Eventually the tempo of oil exploration around Titioute and boom town debauchery slowed as the region’s daily production fell.

Although drilling discipline and well spacing, reservoir engineering and other oilfield management skills would evolve, Triumph Hill’s glory dissipated within five years as overproduction drained the field.

Today, Triumph Hill remains as one of the many quietly beautiful and forest-covered sites along the Allegheny River Valley that has earned a special place in America’s petroleum history. Titioute also is among the earliest panoramic maps of America’s earliest petroleum communities by Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler. Read more about his work in Oil Town “Aero Views.”

triumph hill oil

Traveling from Pennsylvania to Texas at the turn of the century, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler created oil town “aero views” – panoramic maps of many of America’s earliest petroleum communities. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Frank Robbins – Oil Patch Photographer

Photographers like Frank Robbins captured many great views of North American oil booms, according to geologist and oil patch historian Jeff Spencer. “Common scenes included oil gushers, oilfield fires, teamsters, and boom towns.”

“Frank Robbins documented the emerging Pennsylvania petroleum industry of the 1860s through 1880s,” Spencer noted in a 2011 article in the journal Oil-Industry History“He was one of the most prolific producers of stereoscopic views of oilfields in the Oil City and Bradford, Pennsylvania and Olean, New York area. His many oilfield views include scenes of Triumph Hill, Tidioute, Petrolia, and Pithole. Many of his photographs also were used in early twentieth century postcards.”

triumph hill oil

A stereoscopic view by Frank Robbins described simply as “Drake Well, the first oil well.” Courtesy the New York Public Library

Spencer in 2003 published a book featuring historic Texas postcards (see Postcards from the Texas Oil Patch). For more resources of oilfield imagery, visit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s Petroleum Photography Websites.

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AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.

 

lone wolf gonzaullas texas ranger

“Give Texas more Rangers of the caliber of ‘Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas and the crime wave we are going through will not be of long duration,” reported the Dallas Morning News in 1934.

By September 3, 1930, when the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well near Kilgore first tapped the great East Texas oilfield, he was already known as “El Lobo Solo.” Gonzaullas brought his own methods for enforcing law and order.

Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas was born in 1891 in Cádiz, Spain, to a Spanish father and Canadian mother who were naturalized U.S. citizens. At age 15 he witnessed the murder of his only two brothers and the wounding of his parents when bandits raided their home. Fourteen years later, he joined the Texas Rangers.

“He was a soft-spoken man and his trigger finger was slightly bent,” independent oilman and philanthropist Watson W. Wise characterized him during a 1985 interview in his office in Tyler, Texas. “He always told me it was geared to that .45 of his.”

When Kilgore became “the most lawless town in Texas” after the October 1930 oil boom started, Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas was the Texas Ranger sent out to tame it, according to Wise, himself a distinguished oilman and philanthropist who moved to Texas in 1925.

lone wolf gonzaullas texas ranger

“I went into lots of fights by myself, and I came out by myself, too!” said Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, shown here on his black stallion Tony. Image from cover of 1980 book by Brownson Malsch, Captain M. T. Gonzaullas Lone Wolf the Only Texas Ranger Captain of Spanish Descent.

Gonzaullas – five feet, nine inches tall, with a scarred face, and no sense of humor – was “a very serious type fella,” Wise noted.

“He was sent out to Pecos one time to stop a riot out there, added Wise. “When he got off the train there was a great posse waiting to greet him, and when they saw he was alone, they said, ‘Where’s all your help Mr. Gonzaullas?’ and he said, ‘There’s only one riot isn’t there?’”

He rode a black stallion named Tony and often sported two pearl-handled, silver-mounted .45 pistols. On his chest was a shining Texas Ranger star, recalled Wise, who moved to Texas in 1925 and founded several successful independent oil companies.

Wise said news about the wiry Texas Ranger spread; everyone in Kilgore soon knew Gonzaullas was in town. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The largest U.S. private oil lease ever negotiated was signed in 1933. The 825,000 acre King Ranch oil deal with Humble Oil and Refining will lead to ExxonMobil. The agreement, which has produced more than $1 billion in royalties, has been extended ever since.

king ranch oil

Well known in 1957, Robert Kleberg, the grandson of ranch founder, Richard King, made hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from his grandfather’s 1933 lease deal.

Despite dry holes drilled more than a decade earlier, a geologist convinced his petroleum company to further explore a big ranch in South Texas.

At one point covering one million acres, King Ranch today is still bigger than the state of Rhode Island (776,960 acres).

According to the Texas State Historical Association, King Ranch began in 1852, when Richard King and Gideon Lewis set up a cattle camp on Santa Gertrudis Creek southwest of Corpus Christi.

The ranch expanded into Nueces, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties. Its Running W  brand appeared in the 1860s.

King Ranch became famous for its Texas longhorn cattle. Petroleum exploration there began as early as 1919.  Exploratory wells drilled by a future major oil company – the largest in the America – were dry holes.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Oil and Refining Company, a Houston company founded in 1917, drilled the King Ranch’s early “dusters.”

With no discoveries by 1926, the company let its lease expire. Years would  pass as new exploration and production terms were negotiated.

“Agreement was not reached until 1933 because Humble’s top management was uncertain about the oil potential of this part of Texas,” explains a 2010 article by John Ashton and Edgar Sneed.

Company geologist Wallace E. Pratt finally convinced Humble Oil and Refining President W. S. Parrish to lease the King Ranch for $127,824 per year, plus a one-eighth royalty.

King ranch oil

Humble Oil and Refining Company’s first home office was built in 1920 at Main and Polk streets in downtown Houston.

The petroleum lease, signed on September 26, 1933, will bring wealth to both the ranch and the young petroleum company.

Subsequent leases from neighboring ranches gave Humble Oil and Refining nearly two million acres of mineral rights between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande River. The first successful oil well on the King Ranch was completed in 1939.

“Drilling was minor until 1945, when the Borregas oil field was discovered,” note Ashton and Sneed in their Handbook of Texas Online King Ranch article.

“After that, several major oil and gas discoveries were made on the ranch, where in 1947 Humble operated 390 producing oil wells,” they add. The company constructed a refinery in Kingsville to handle its growing oil production in South Texas.

Destined for Greatness

By 1953 King Ranch had 650 producing oil and natural gas wells.

In 1980 a subsidiary – King Ranch Oil and Gas – was formed to conduct exploration and production in five states and the Gulf of Mexico. Eight years later the company sold its Louisiana and Oklahoma holdings to Presidio Oil for more than $40 million.

“In 1992 King Ranch Oil and Gas was one among several companies to discover natural gas off the coast of Louisiana,” conclude  Ashton and Sneed.

“By 1994 the King Ranch had received oil and gas royalties amounting to more than $1 billion since World War II,” they add.

king ranch oil

In Kingsville, Texas, the tiered Mediterranean-style main house of King Ranch headquarters, “looms like a palace over the kingdom.”

Humble Oil and Refining Company will consolidate operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey. By the 1950s it merges operations with Esso, leading to Exxon.

Today, as ExxonMobil,  the company continues to extend the King Ranch lease agreement that has been in effect since September 1933.

“The King family became the closest thing to royalty in Texas,” Nanette Watson proclaims in her April 2012 article in Houses with History.

“Admired for their hard work and generosity, the family is expressly private and protective of their land,” she writes. “The ruling family’s tiered Mediterranean-style main house at the headquarters looms like a palace over the kingdom.”

Watson also says the family’s “destined for greatness” legacy was portrayed in the 1956 Hollywood epic Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson.

Although the rancher (Hudson) and the roughneck (Dean) are thrown into conflict prior to an oil gusher, by the time the movie was made, well control had been around more than 30 years. See Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.

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Refinery Supply Company Slide Rule

 

David Rance collects slide rules, those analog calculating devices that became obsolete when electronic pocket calculators hit the market in the early 1970s. He hopes someone will know something about a rare one from a refinery supply company.

Slide-Rule-detail-David-Rance-AOGHSRance contacted the American Oil & Gas Historical Society to see if anyone knows more about a recent addition to his private collection. Born in England, he worked in the petroleum industry for 25 years before moving to “the main bulb-growing area of The Netherlands.”

David’s Calculating Sticks website offers historical insights about the calculating devices, including details on the more than 550 slide rules in his collection. In August 2016, he emailed images of his 10-inch wooden slide rule, which has “Refinery Supply Company” and “AC-ME Pocket Calculator” printed on its back.

“Sadly, like the one in the MIT collection, it came without any documentation and despite my best efforts, I still know very little about its provenance,” he wrote, referring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s museum.

oilfield artifacts

The Refinery Supply Company of Tulsa and Dallas, “appears to have a rich history as a major supplier/reseller,” notes collector David Rance of the Netherlands.

The slide rule is “the iconic instrument of the engineering profession,” according to the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Every significant human-built structure of the past 150 years has involved its use.” Among the world’s top science and engineering universities, MIT was founded in 1861 – just two years after the first U.S. commercial oil well launched the oil and gas industry.

Rance believes his ruler was used in the petroleum industry for “orifice meters,” he says. “With the slide rule it is possible to calculate gas flows directly from static pressure, differential pressure and orifice coefficient settings.”

The supplier, the Refinery Supply Company of Tulsa (and Dallas), “appears to have a rich history as a major supplier/reseller, notes Rance. “I believe ‘AC-ME’ refers to the aptly named ‘AC-CURATE ME-ASUREMENT PRECISION INSTRUMENTS’ Company, possibly once based in Piqua, Ohio,” he adds. Refinery Supply Company of Tulsa was established in 1923 – but today cannot locate information about its old slide rule.

“Can the AOGHS help? From your archives or anyone associated with society, can you tell me anything about this AC-ME pocket calculator, the Refinery Supply Company or the AC-CURATE ME-ASUREMENT PRECISION INSTRUMENTS Company?”

Adding to the mystery is that the slide rule was made in Germany, Rance says. “A more natural choice would have been one of excellent U.S.-based slide rule makers such as Keuffel & Esser Company. So it begs the question, why would a Tulsa-based supplier import such an item?

“I look forward to hearing anything your knowledgeable AOGHS community can tell me about my rather mysterious AC-ME Pocket Calculator.”

Comment below if you would like to share some information about this slide rule.

 

The popular Depression era comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a cartoonist who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps.

alley oop

A 1995 postage stamp commemorates “Alley Oop” by Victor Hamlin, a cartoonist from the Yates oil field company town of Iraan, Texas.

“Alley Oop” appeared for the first time on August 7, 1933, when Victor Hamlin, a former Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reporter, published the soon wildly popular caveman. Hamlin, originally from Perry, Iowa, began syndicating his daily cartoon in the Des Moines Register.

The comic strip, which will run in more than 800 newspapers nationwide, began in a small town in the Permian Basin.

The West Texas oil town of Iraan (pronounced eye-rah-ann) would later proclaim itself as Hamlin’s inspiration.

Iraan first appeared as a company town following the discovery of the prolific Yates oilfield. The town’s name combined names of the townsite owners, Ira and Ann Yates. Discovered in October 1926 in southeastern Pecos County, the Yates field brought prosperity to Midland, Odessa and other communities by producing more than 40 million barrels in just three years.

According to one comic strip historian, the cartoonist came up with the idea for Alley Oop while working in the Permian Basin oilfields. As Iraan boomed in the late 1920s, Hamlin worked in the oil patch.

“He could watch dinosaur bones being removed by the steam shovels and scrapers as they cleared the sites for drilling, wells, and pumps,” Mike Hanlon explains. Hamlin developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.

“Hamlin moved on to doing art for an oil industry publication and one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oilfields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory,” reports Steve Stiles in The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs.

Hamlin, who reportedly witnessed the first oil gusher at Iraan, worked as a cartographer for petroleum company making their site maps.

The official start date Alley Oop as a daily strip was August 7, 1933. The Sunday page began September 9, 1934.

The biggest roughnecking days are over in Iraan by 1960 – when the band “The Hollywood Argyles” sang Alley Oop was “the toughest man there is alive.” The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.

Today, tourists visit the Alley Oop Museum and R.V. Park on the northwest edge of Iraan. Thanks to improved recovery techniques, oil production from Yates oil wells continues – and the field is estimated to have one billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining.

Although Hamlin retired in 1971 and died in 1993, his daily strips (now by Jack and Carole Bender) today appear in 600 newspapers. Alley Oop was one of 20 U.S. Postal Service commemorative Comic Strip Classics postage stamp series in 1995.

When visiting West Texas, stop by Iraan and visit the Alley Opp Park and Fantasy Land.

 

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS.

 

It is the most photographed landmark in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seventy-six feet tall and weighing almost 22 tons, the Golden Driller towers above all roughnecks.

golden giant

Designated an Oklahoma state monument in 1979, the Golden Driller was permanently installed for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa.

Since the giant oilman’s first appearance at the 1953 International Petroleum Exposition, he has become a symbol a city once known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”

Tulsa and its Golden Driller have witnessed many booms – and busts – of the U.S. petroleum industry over the years.

Originally sponsored in 1953 by the Mid-Continent Supply Company of Fort Worth, Texas, the giant proved very popular. So much so that a new version was temporarily erected again for the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition. The oilfield equipment expos will continue for decades at the Tulsa County Free Fair site, which began in 1903.

golden driller

The originial Golden Driller of 1953, left, proved so popular that a second rig-climbing version returned for the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition. Images courtesy Tulsa Historical Society.

Although again a temporary statue, the 1959 Golden Driller impressed visitors and exhibitors at the oil show.

“This time he was much more chiseled and detailed and was placed climbing a derrick and waving,” notes a Tulsa Historical Society volunteer.

The big roughneck again attracted so much attention that Mid-Continent Supply refurbished and donated it to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Trust Authority.

“Over the next seven years he had a makeover, actually he had to be completely re-made to withstand the elements,” explains Nancy “Tulsa Gal” of the Tulsa Historical Society.

golden driller

Mid-Continent Supply Company constructed a permanent version in 1966 with steel rods to withstand up to 200 mph winds. Refurbished again in 1979, it was designated a Oklahoma state monument.

The statue as it appears today was permanently installed at the 21st Street and Pittsburg Avenue site for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition. The late Tulsa photographer Walter Brewer documented the giant with images donated to the Tulsa Historical Society, she adds in her October 2010 website post.

Designated a state monument and refurbished again in 1979, the Golden Driller contains a total of 2.5 miles of rods and mesh, according to Nancy. “Made from plaster and concrete, it can withstand 200 mph winds, which is a good thing here in Oklahoma.”

 golden driller

The giant has sported t-shirts, belts, beads and ties.This shirt is from the 2014 Tulsa State Fair and KMOD radio. Images courtesy the Tulsa Historical Society.

The Golden Driller’s right hand rests on an old production derrick moved from an oilfield near Seminole, Oklahoma – which has its own extensive petroleum heritage.

Fully refurbished in the late 1970s, the Golden Driller – by now a 43,500-pound tourist attraction – is the largest free-standing statue in the world, according to Tulsa city officials.

“Over time the Driller has seen the good and the bad,” Nancy explains.

“He has been vandalized, assaulted by shotgun blasts and severe weather. But he has also had more photo sessions with tourists than any other Tulsa landmark and can boast of many who love him all around the world,” she concludes.

The Golden Driller, a symbol of the International Petroleum Exposition. Dedicated to the men of the petroleum industry who by their vision and daring have created from God’s abundance a better life for mankind. – Inscription on the plaque at the statue’s base.

Although the first International Petroleum Exposition and Congress had no giant roughneck statue in 1923, the expo helped make Tulsa famous around the world. In 1905 – two years before Oklahoma became a state – an oil discovery on the Glenn farm south of Tulsa brought the city’s first drilling boom. Learn more in Making Tulsa the Oil Capital.

golden driller

An unidentified model posed on one of the Golden Driller’s shoes, probably sometime during construction of the permanent version in time for the 1966 petroleum expo.

golden driller

A 2007 American Oil & Gas Historical Society Energy Education Conference and Field Trip in Oklahoma City included visits to museums in Seminole, Drumright and Tulsa – with a stop at the Golden Driller.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation

 

In perhaps the first raid on petroleum facilities in warfare, in the spring of 1863 a regiment of Confederate cavalry attacked the oil town of Burning Springs in what will soon become West Virginia. The rebel raiders destroyed equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.

confederates attack oilfield

“The First Virginia (Rebel) cavalry at halt. Sketched from nature by Mr. A. R. Waud.” From Harper’s Weekly, September 27, 1862. Gen. Jones’ Brigade consisted of the 6th, 7th, 11th, 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiments and 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion.

confederates attack oilfield

The Burning Springs oilfield (at bottom) was destroyed by Confederate raiders in May 1863 when Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and 1,300 troopers attacked in what some call the first oilfield destroyed in a war.

On May 9, 1863, the Burning Springs oilfield is destroyed by Confederate raiders led by Gen. William “Grumble” Jones – “making it the first of many oilfields destroyed in war,” notes McKain, who has added a small oil museum annex near Burning Springs.

Gen. Jones later reported his rebel troops left burning oil tanks, a “scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart.”

West Virginia Oil History

“After the Civil War, the industry was revived and over the next fifty years the booms spread over almost all the counties of the state,” explains historian David McKain, founder and director of a petroleum museum in Parkersburg.

confederates attack oilfield

In May 1861, the Rathbone brothers use a spring-pole to dig a well at Burning Springs that reaches 303 feet and begins producing 100 barrels of oil a day. An oil boom soon follows.

Almost a century earlier, George Washington had acquired 250 acres in the region because it contained oil and natural gas seeps.

“This was in 1771, making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator,” notes McKain, author of Where It All Began, a history of the West Virginia petroleum industry.

As early as 1831, natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by the Kanawha salt manufacturers.

A thriving commercial oil industry grew in Petroleum and California – towns near Parkersburg.

Then in 1861 at Burning Springs, the Rathbone brothers’ spring-pole oil well reached 303 feet – and began producing 100 barrels of oil a day.

“These events truly mark the beginnings of the oil and gas industry in the United States,” says McKain.

confederates attack oilfield

Founded by oilman David McKain, the Oil and Gas Museum is near the Ohio River at 119 Third Street in downtown Parkersburg, West Virginia. As early as 1831, natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by salt manufacturers.

“Drilling and producing of both oil and natural gas continues throughout the state to this day,” adds McKain, head of the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg.

The wealth created by petroleum helped bring statehood for West Virginia during the Civil War, he adds.

“Many of the founders and early politicians were oil men – governor, senator and congressman – who had made their fortunes at Burning Springs in 1860-1861,” adds McKain.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation admitting the state on June 20.

Confederates attack Oilfield

When Confederate Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and 1,300 troopers attacked Burning Springs in the spring of 1863, they destroyed equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.

“The wells are owned mainly by Southern men, now driven from their homes, and their property appropriated either by the Federal Government or Northern men,” said Gen. Jones of his raid on this early oil boom town.

Gen. Jones officially reported to Gen. Robert E. Lee that:

confederates attack oilfield

Confederate cavalry Gen. William “Grumble” Jones

All the oil, the tanks, barrels, engines for pumping, engine-houses, and wagons – in a word, everything used for raising, holding, or sending it off was burned.

Men of experience estimated the oil destroyed at 150,000 barrels. It will be many months before a large supply can be had from this source, as it can only be boated down the Little Kanawha when the waters are high.

The Oil and Gas Museum, maintained by McKain and volunteers, added a small museum at Burning Springs and a park at California, about 27 miles east of Parkersburg on West Virginia 47.

In addition to Where It All Began, McKain has published The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia – The Fascinating Story Of The Economic, Military and Political Events In Northwestern Virginia During the Tumultuous Times Of The Civil War.

McKain continues to lead efforts to promote the state’s petroleum and Civil War heritage.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.

 

Formed by Harry F. Sinclair in 1916, Sinclair Oil is one of the oldest continuous names in the oil industry. The Sinclair dinosaur first appeared in 1930. “Dino” quickly became a marketing icon whose popularity with children – and educational value – remains to this day.

sinclair dinosaur

Today known more correctly as Apatosaurus, in the 1960s a 70-foot “Dino” traveled more 10,000 miles through 25 states – stopping at shopping centers and other venues where children were introduced to the wonders of the Mesozoic era courtesy of Sinclair Oil.

Sinclair dinosaur

Sinclair’s first super-fuel is marketed in 1926. The “HC” initials stand for “Houston Concentrate,” but some advertising men prefer the term “High Compression.”

With $50 million in assets, Harry Ford Sinclair borrowed another $20 million and formed Sinclair Oil & Refining Corporation on May 1, 1916. He brought together a collection of several depressed oil properties, five small refineries and many untested leases – all acquired at bargain prices.

In its first 14 months, Sinclair’s New York-based company produces six million barrels of oil for a net income of almost $9 million.

The company’s refining capacity grew from 45,000 barrels a day in 1920 to 100,000 barrels in 1926. It reached 150,000 barrels in 1932.

Sinclair Oil began using an Apatosaurus (then called a Brontosaurus) in its advertising, sales promotions and product labels in 1930. Children loved it.

The first “Brontosaurus” trademark made its debut in Chicago during the 1933-1934 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair. Read the rest of this entry »

 

oklahoma oil history

In addition to attracting exploration companies, Oklahoma’s drilling booms brought traffic jams, including this one in Seminole, Oklahoma, circa mid-1920s. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Oil Museum.

Oklahoma oil history began when exploration companies rushed to Indian Territory in 1897 after a column of oil erupted from a well near Bartlesville, a small town on the Caney River just south of the Kansas border.

These “wildcatters” often used steam boilers to power heavy cable tools for Making Hole – Drilling Technology. It was an technique that had evolved from using a spring pole to drill brine wells for making salt.

The 1897 Bartlesville gusher, which came a decade before statehood, was the First Oklahoma Oil Well. Other oilfield discoveries quickly followed, making national headlines and attracting investors seeking riches in Mid-Continent black gold.

Adding to the region’s oil fever, the 1901 Red Fork Gusher launched another historic drilling boom, soon Making Tulsa “Oil Capital of the World.”

When Missouri investors saw opportunities in the oilfields at the Kansas-Oklahoma border, they formed Cahege Oil & Gas Company. Following statehood in 1907, more major discovers made the Sooner State famous worldwide.

More than 50 refineries once operated in the Cushing area about 50 miles west of Tulsa. Pipelines and storage facilities have since made it “the pipeline crossroads of the world.” Photo from Cushing oilfield, 1910-1918, courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

In March 1912 near Cushing, the Wheeler No. 1 wildcat well produced 400 barrels a day from less than 2,350 feet deep. It marked the first gusher of an independent oilman once known as Thomas “Dry Hole” Slick.

An historic marker commemorates the August 9, 1921, field testing of seismic technology. The site is located on I-35 about halfway between Oklahoma City and Dallas.

Tom Slick would begin an 18 year streak of discovering some of America’s most prolific oilfields. –  and become known as Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.

Thanks to a University of Oklahoma physicist, new earth-science technologies like reflection seismography began revolutionizing petroleum exploration in the 1920s.

J.C. Karcher’s methods evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I. He measured the first reflection seismograph geologic section during an experiment near Ardmore in 1921.

By the 1920s, auctions for Osage Nation mineral leases took place in the shade of a Million Dollar Elm near Pawhuska. Oil production Osage oilfields launched the careers of industry leaders like Frank Phillips, J. Paul Getty, Bill Skelly, E.W. Marland and Harry Sinclair.

South of Oklahoma City, the 1926 oilfield discovery at Seminole launched the Greater Seminole Oil Boom. More than 60 petroleum reservoirs were found in 1,300 square miles of east-central Oklahoma – and seven were giants, producing more than million barrels of oil each.

America’s fascination with Oklahoma’s oilfields briefly switched to natural gas fields in 1906 after a lightning strike ignited a natural gas well fire at Caney, Kansas.

Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles gave daily updates about efforts to extinguish the fire, which became a tourist attraction – and part of Oklahoma oil history.

Read about the attempts to extinguish the Caney flame – which could be seen for 35 miles – in Kansas Gas Well FireLearn more Sunflower State petroleum history in Kansas Oil Boom.

Long after the the First American Oil Well on August 27, 1859, nine out of 10 U.S. “wildcat ” wells ending up expensive dry holes.  Details about the fate of some exploration companies taking part in the industry’s booms and busts can be found in ongoing research at Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?

The Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well in 1897 made Oklahoma oil history in Bartlesville, attracting hundreds of exploration companies to what was then Indian Territory.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © 2016, Bruce Wells, AOGHS.

 

In Memoriam:  Charles W. “Cookie” Cookson, Founder, The American Oil & Gas Reporter

A true leader in petroleum industry journalism, Charles W. “Cookie” Cookson, founder and publisher emeritus of The American Oil & Gas Reporter, died July 17, 2015, in Wichita, Kansas. He was 92. Together with his wife Joyce, he founded the industry trade magazine in 1958. He was inducted into the Butler County History Center and Kansas Oil Museum’s Legacy Gallery in 2010. Deepest condolences to the Cookson family from all of us who had the privilege of reporting on the oil patch for him. Visit In Memory of Charles W. “Cookie” Cookson.

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Among those who have served on the editorial staff at The American Oil & Gas Reporter with founder Charles W. “Cookie” Cookson (center) are, from left, Bruce Wells, Alex Mills, Bill Campbell and A.D. Koen. Cookson is holding the artist’s proof of a limited edition print, “Donkey in a Kansas Field,” by California artist JoAnn Cowans. It was presented to him by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, which honored Cookson with its first Oil History Journalism Award in April 2006. Wells founded AOGHS in 2003 and continues to serve as its executive director. Mills is president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers; Campbell remains with The American Oil & Gas Reporter as managing editor; and Koen is an independent energy writer and communications consultant in Houston. Photo courtesy of The American Oil & Gas Reporter.

 

Discounts Now available for First Historical Society Energy Education Calendar!

 The historical solciety's 2015 calendar offers industry milestone dates with 12 historic oil patch photographs from the Library of Congress.

The historical society’s 2015 calendar offers industry milestone dates with 12 historic oil patch photographs from the Library of Congress.

The American Oil & Gas Historical Society has printed a 2015 calendar – Today in American Petroleum History – which includes dates with descriptions of petroleum history milestones, technologies, inventions, oilfield discoveries, pioneers, etc.

Please call (202) 387-6996 – or simply mail, fax or email this easy order form.

The special energy education calendar, printed in partnership with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, launches an annual project useful for energy workshop programs, association members, teachers, students and employees. Each month offers historical facts along with one of 12 Library of Congress oil patch photos from the 1930s.

Beginning in 2016, the industry’s milestone dates will be available in editions customized for companies, museums and other industry organizations.

The history calendar is an inexpensive energy education resource. Depending on the number ordered, the price per 11 inch by 17 inch calendar is as low as $5 each. Please contact Bruce Wells at bawells@aoghs.org or call (202) 387-6996 – or fill out and mail (or email) this order form.

Editor’s Note – Help AOGHS promote the Today in American Petroleum History 2015 calendar using this news release.

 

A centennial oil stamp commemorating the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry is issued on August 27, 1959, by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who proclaims: “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry. It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.” 

Centennial Oil Stamp

With 120 million stamps to follow the first day of issue on August 27, 1959, the petroleum stamps serve “as a reminder of what can be achieved by the combination of free enterprise and the vision and courage and effort of dedicated men,” declares the U.S. Postmaster.

As the sesquicentennial of America’s 1859 first commercial oil discovery neared – a special committee sought U.S. Postal Service approval for a commemorative stamp for 2009. Read the rest of this entry »