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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 »


Building a community oil museum is not for the faint of heart.

“Money and volunteers, volunteers and money,” are the biggest challenges, according to John Larrabee, board president for the Illinois Oil Field Museum and Resource Center on the outskirts of his hometown of Oblong, Illinois.

The Illinois Oil Field Museum is located in Oblong, Illinois, on Highway 33, southeast of Effingham. First opened in 1961, the community museum moved into a new building in 2001 and today continues to add new exhibits.

“The first thing you have to have is a goal and the determination to keep at it, no matter what. Don’t give up, whatever happens,” Larrabee explained in a 2004 interview with historical society Contributing Editor Kris Wells.

It helps to know something about the oil business, said the third generation Illinois Basin oilman. “The museum began way back in 1961 with a fellow named Enos Bloom, Larrabee noted. “In those days, the city of Oblong provided and maintained a building that housed donated artifacts.” Read the rest of this entry »


A pink granite rock marks the spot where a large crowd gathered at Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well to witness history being made in 1897.

Prior to the Civil War, America’s search for oil prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and wildcatters to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.

This was land reserved for Native Americans by Congress and home to its indigenous people as well as the “Five Civilized Tribes” – Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw, which had been relocated from the Southeast.

Each of the Five Civilized Tribes established national territorial boundaries, constitutional governments, and advanced judicial and public school systems. The Indian Territory included present-day Oklahoma north and east of the Red River, as well as Kansas and Nebraska. Read the rest of this entry »


Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum Director Sherri Schulze in 2005 exhibited a laminated (though wrinkled) page from a newspaper published in 1899. “This was done by a student many years ago,” she said. “It was a school project done by one of Mrs. Alford’s descendants.”

Although a proper turn-of-the-century lady, she cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine every day.

Mrs. Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” was an astute businesswoman in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield.

Over 125 years later, the Bradford oilfield in northwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent New York remains interesting for several more reasons, according to geologists and a nearby petroleum museum.

“A light golden amber to a deep moss-green in color, the ‘miracle molecule ‘ from the Bradford field is high in paraffin and considered one of the highest grade natural lubricant crude oils in the world,” explains the Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum.

Opened in 1971, an oil park near Bradford, Pennsylvania, includes a 72-foot cable-tool rig.

Opened in 1971, an oil park near Bradford, Pennsylvania, includes a 72-foot cable-tool rig.

In 1881, the Bradford field alone accounted for 83 percent of all the oil produced in The United States. Today, horizontal drilling technologies are producing natural gas from a 400-million-year-old rock formation, the Marcellus Shale.

“It is located about equidistant between the place where oil was first discovered in America and the famous Drake well,” notes a 1929 abstract from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

With 85,000 acres of continuously productive territory from the Bradford sand, “its 25,000 producing wells and fifty-five years of productive history make it one of the most outstanding oil fields of the world.”

In November 1899, the New York World newspaper featured the world-famous oilfield – and its nitroglycerine company run by a woman more than two decades before women won the right to vote.

“It is an odd business for a woman to be in,” said Mrs. Alford in the World’s article, “but I know no reason why a woman who understands it cannot manage it as well as a man.”

She entered the business in 1884 with her husband. Ten years later, owing to Mr. Alford’s failing health, she took over the business. By 1899 she had increased daily production to 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine and 6,000 pounds of dynamite.

Demand was high since nitroglycerin detonations – “shooting” a well – increased a well’s production from petroleum bearing formations. See Shooters – A “Fracking” History.

Soon Mrs. Alford’s manufacturing plant consisted of 12 cheaply built and unpainted wood buildings located outside of Eldred, Pennsylvania. Brick buildings would have been prettier, she told the New York newspaper, but it would cost more to replace them.

“The owner of a nitroglycerine factory never knows beforehand when it is going to blow up or afterward why it did blow up,” the article explained. “There is never anyone to explain how it happened.”

In 1899, the manufacture of nitroglycerine was a primitive, cautious, temperature-sensitive churning of nitric and sulphuric acids with glycerin. Knowing the temperature was vital.

“On the accuracy of the thermometer depend the lives of the employees,” Mrs. Alford said. “When the mixing is done, the liquid is the color of milk. It is drawn off into a wooden tank in which there is eighteen inches of cold water. As the milky fluid strikes the water, red fumes light the surface and there is a sound like the hissing of geese.”

If successful, the nitroglycerine settled to the bottom of the wooden tank. Poured and readied for transport, an eight-quart can weighed 26 pounds and sold for $8 dollars. It was delivered by wagon – trains would not transport nitroglycerine for any price.

Mrs. Alford maintained that if people were kind to nitroglycerine, they could live with it for a long time, despite her own close call.

She lived with her husband and daughter only about 80-yards from their factory. One evening, an employee may have absent-mindedly lit a match or otherwise erred. The factory and their home were obliterated and the family buried under the debris.

Neighbors dug them out to find they were not seriously injured. They rebuilt and started again.

Mrs. Alford raised her daughter, Dessie, in the business.

“Dessie is my right bower,” she said. “I believe in bringing up a girl to work, even if it is not necessary from a financial point of view. Riches, if they fly away, do not work so much hardship for a girl who has been taught to work.”

The 19th century oilfield was a dangerous place – made even more dangerous by nitroglycerine. Despite the hazards, Mrs. Alford lived long and prospered. She died of natural causes in 1924 at the age of 77. Daughter Dessie followed in 1947 at 79.

Today, surrounded by the beautiful Allegheny National Forest, Bradford is home to Zippo Manufacturing Company and the American Refining Group, the oldest continuously operating refinery in the United States.

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Since 1896, when the first commercial oil well was drilled in Bartlesville, many historic Oklahoma oilfields have been discovered: Glennpool, Cushing, Three Sands, Healdton, Oklahoma City and others – including 20 “giants.” Few have had the tremendous economic impact as the late 1920s oilfields of the greater Seminole area.  Read the rest of this entry »


With exhibits collected over five decades by Francis “F.T.” Sr., the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum of Burkburnett, Texas, displays machinery from the height of a 1918 North Texas oil boom. Portable cable-tool spudders are watched over by museum founder’s son, F.T. Felty, Jr., an independent oil and gas producer.

Francis “F.T.” Felty Jr., stands by a photograph of himself playing on his father’s drilling rig.

Three generations of the Felty family have kicked historic Burkburnett oil field mud from their boots.

The first, Francis “F.T.” Felty Sr., worked in Wichita County through the revival of a North Texas drilling boom during World War Two. Responding to the war’s steel shortages, he crisscrossed the oil patch in a truck – pulling used casings. It turned into a long career in the oil patch.

When the senior Felty moved from salvaging and began drilling in the 1970s, it was within sight of the historic 1918 Burkburnett discovery well. He had begun collecting old oil field equipment in the 1950s – and a lot of rocks, says his son, Francis “F.T.” Felty Jr., the owner of the F.T. Felty Operating Company Read the rest of this entry »