Michigan’s “Golden Gulch” of Oil
The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oil field is the stuff of dreams and legends, says one historian.
After decades of dry holes or small oil discoveries, the Houseknecht No. 1 discovery well of January 7, 1957, reveals a 29-miles-long oil and natural gas field.
It takes more than two years of drilling, but the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovers Michigan’s largest oil field – the “Golden Gulch” Albion-Pulaski-Scipio Field.
The 3,576-foot-deep well near Scipio Township in Hillsdale County in southwestern Michigan produces from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone.
Local lore says that the well’s namesake, Ferne Houseknecht, had been told by a spiritualist that there was oil under her farm.
She convinced her uncle, Clifford Perry, to help drill a well one joint of pipe at a time between other farm projects.
“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oil field legends,” explains Michigan historian and author Jack Westbrook.
“One version of the legend says that a fortune teller told young Ferne Houseknect that a ‘black river of oil’ lay beneath her property in Hillsdale County,” Westbrook notes.
“Another version of the story says that the Houseknects were taking a cow to be bred and on the way drove past a drilling rig where Perry was working and from their conversation a deal was struck,” he adds.
The well was begun in May of 1954, but it took a lot of time to drill – often with months off between work, says Westbrook, retired managing editor of the Michigan Oil & Gas News.
He says the well, drilled with little encouragement from state geologists and other petroleum industry experts, was financed by Houseknecht’s family and friends.
The giant oil field will come to be known as the “Golden Gulch” – and “foster a boom on a discovery-hungry petroleum industry to end a 15-year major discovery drought in Michigan,” Westbrook says.
The well triggers a drilling boom that results in 734 wells producing more than 150 million barrels of oil and almost a quarter-trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Westbrook notes that modern day oil and natural gas explorers, armed with new detection and completion technology, have returned to the Albion-Scipio area.
Beginning 2006, increased statewide production reversed a 25-year downward trend in annual oil output and an eight-year decline in natural gas production.
Westbrook is author of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35 year Michigan investment heritage in Michigan’s public recreation future - see the review in Books & Artists.
The Michigan Oil & Gas Association was organized in 1934. Read “Michigan Petroleum History Exhibit” to learn more about Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library in Mount Pleasant, where the early days of Michigan’s petroleum history is illustrated with examples from the library’s extensive holdings.
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