The only giant Michigan oil and natural gas field was discovered in January 1957 on the dairy farm of Ferne Houseknecht. Her first oil well revealed the 29-mile-long “Golden Gulch.”

michigan oil and gas

Ferne Houseknecht proudly holds a plaque commemorating the oil well on her dairy farm. The Houseknecht No. 1 well of January 7, 1957, revealed a giant, 29-miles-long oil field – the largest in Michigan.

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 the massive oil and natural gas field.

It takes more than two years of drilling, but the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovers Michigan’s largest oilfield – 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 oil and gas 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.

michigan oil and gas

Petroleum exploration continues in Michigan. Of the 171 well drilled in 2010, 116 were for development — and 55 wells were exploratory. Thirty of the latter resulted in dry holes. The state has more than 14,000 producing wells.

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 Michigan oil and 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.

Created in the 1970s as an alliance of government, environmental groups and the Michigan oil and natural gas industry the Trust Fund set an example for others established decades later in other producing states, he notes.

Michigan has produced over 1.25 billion barrels of oil and more than seven trillion feet of natural gas since the discovery of the Saginaw Field in August 1925.

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.

Michigan Oil and Gas Producers

The Michigan Oil And Gas Association, established in 1934, today includes about 1,000 members representing Michigan oil and natural gas exploration and production, according to President and CEO Frank Mortl.

“Michigan is blessed to have its own energy resources, and as energy demands continue to escalate, it’s just common sense that we look to our own resources and highly experienced producers to supply the energy we need, create jobs for our citizens, and grow our economy, ” Mortl says.

“Michigan producers already supply nearly 22 percent of all of the natural gas used in our state,” he adds. “The potential exists for even greater self-reliance and economic gain.”

Regarding issues like hydraulic fracturing, Mortl says claims about potential risk to water resources and lax regulatory oversight are unfounded. “Hydraulic fracturing in Michigan occurs below any fresh water zones, and Michigan’s strict well construction requirements assure these resources are protected,” he claims.

Mortl notes that Michigan has more than 60-year record of using hydraulic fracturing in over 12,000 Michigan wells, without environmental incident, demonstrating Michigan producers’ ability to use hydraulic fracturing safely and responsibly.

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