When America’s first commercial oil well was drilled in 1859 near oil seeps along a creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania, a new breed of entrepreneurs began searching for oil seeps in other states. Refineries wanted the “rock oil” to make a popular lamp fuel, kerosene.

Oil discovery in Neodesha

The Norman No. 1 Well Museum in Neodesha, Kansas, preserves the state’s extensive oil heritage.

In 1860, George Brown, a newspaperman in Kansas Territory, recalled stories about an oil spring in Lykins County. Brown, who had arrived a few years earlier from the Pennsylvania oil regions, gathered a few partners and drilled three shallow wells one mile east of Paola.

After two dry holes, the third well had reached about 100 feet deep on the Baptist Indian Mission grounds owned by David Lykins when it produced a few barrels of oil. But the Civil War ended his quest for oil riches.

Although other exploration companies returned to Lykins County (renamed Miami County in 1861) after the war, it would be almost two decades before Kansas became a producing state — thanks to a natural gas discovery.

In 1882, the Kansas Oil and Mining Company drilled for oil on the Westfall farm, seven miles east of Paola. Instead of oil, the well uncovered what turned out to be a giant gas field. By the mid-1880s, Paola was the first Kansas town to use natural gas commercially for illumination, reportedly the first to do so west of the Mississippi River.

As more drilling companies completed gas wells, Paola’s city council instructed its “light committee” to purchase 50 lamps to be erected on the main thoroughfares. Four flambeaux arches were erected in the town square to attract industries from Kansas City.

kansas oil

A 1985 Kansas Geology Survey map includes a massive gas region in the southwestern part of the state discovered in 1919.

kansas oil

Oil flowing from Kansas wells marked the beginning of production from Mid-Continent fields.

“Paola has the cheapest fuel in Kansas,” civic leaders declared in 1887 as new, gas-fueled flour mills and glass factories opened. But with limited technologies and little understanding of conservation, Paola’s wells started to run dry.

Fortunately, another petroleum boom soon began in Kansas.

About 110 miles southwest of Paola, on November 28, 1892, after 22 days of difficult drilling, the Norman No. 1 well found oil at Neodesha in Wilson County. The first commercial oil well in Kansas was completed in a garden plot belonging to T.J. Norman, a local blacksmith.

William Mills made the discovery along the banks of the Verdigris River. Since he had been drilling for natural gas (near oil seeps) he temporarily capped the well, which was about 830 feet deep.

Mills decided to take a sample of his oil to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “to see if he could raise interest in that more oil-savvy area,” noted Larry Skelton of the Kansas Geological Survey in a 2006 article for the Petroleum History Institute. Mills met with two experienced independent oil operators, John Galey and James Guffey.

Galey and Guffey convinced Mills to form a partnership, and together they returned to Neodesha to “shoot” the well. To improve production, they detonated 30 quarts of nitroglycerine that had been hauled (carefully) by wagon from Webb City, Missouri.

kansas oil

A Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha processed 500 barrels of oil a day in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

Although it initially produced less than 12 barrels of oil a day, the Norman No. 1 well was the first to reveal America’s Mid-Continent petroleum region, today including oil and gas fields in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. “Norman No. 1, by opening up the Mid-Continent field, made possible the competition that eventually broke Standard Oil’s stranglehold on the American petroleum industry,”  noted the Kansas Historical Society in 2010.

Thanks to the Pennsylvanians, the Neodesha discovery attracted the attention of men willing to risk large amounts of money on Kansas as a source of oil,” explains the local oil museum. They also invested in infrastructure like pipelines. Kansas refineries began turning oil into inexpensive kerosene for lamps – and soon, gasoline for automobiles.

In 1901, Guffey and Galey used their success in Kansas to provide financial backing for the “Lucas Gusher” discovery well at Spindletop, Texas. Just one year earlier, the first U.S. auto show at Madison Square Garden in New York City drew thousands to see steam, electric, and gasoline powered automobiles.

By 1904, Kansas was producing four million barrels of oil per year. In 1925, it was ranked fifth among the states in oil production. A 1919 wildcat well in the southwestern part of the state discovered the massive Hugoton natural gas field that extended into Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. That Seward County gas well remained capped for three years, because the company had been looking for oil. There were no pipelines for the gas.

kansas oil

A 1960s image of the Neodesha Oil Museum with its replica Norman No. 1 derrick. Photo courtesy the museum, which moved to Main Street in 1989.

Abandoned in 1919, the Norman No. 1 wellsite along the Verdigris River was designated a U.S. National Landmark in 1977. The Norman No. 1 Museum (and R.V. park) includes a 65-foot replica derrick of the first Kansas oil well.

The Kansas Historical Society’s photography collection in the W.A. Rankin Memorial Library includes photos of the Norman No. 1 well capturing the excitement it brought to Neodesha. The Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado, Butler Colunty, educates visitors about another major oilfield — the first in the country revealed using the new science of petroleum geology.

The Stapleton No. 1 well, drilled in 1915 east of Wichita, launched another Kansas oil boom. Despite the early U.S. petroleum industry’s basic drilling technologies, several high-pressure gas wells were completed between Neodesha and Bartlesville, Indian Territory, where a 1897 oil gusher launched Oklahoma’s oil industry. A natural gas well at Caney, Kansas, ignited and took five weeks to bring under control (learn more in Kansas Gas Well Fire).

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.