It took awhile, but the 1957 well drilled on Mrs. Houseknecht’s dairy farm found a giant oilfield.

 

An exploratory well in southern Michigan had been drilled on and off for almost two years before revealing the state’s only giant oilfield in January 1957. The discovery at “Rattlesnake Gulch” on Ferne Houseknecht’s dairy farm tapped a petroleum-rich basin that extended dozens of miles.

The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield is the stuff of dreams, according to Michigan historian and author Jack R. Westbrook. The state’s first oilfield, the Saginaw field, was found in 1925 and another field was discovered three years later, but there would be decades of “dry holes” before Mrs. Houseknecht convinced her uncle to finish drilling the well on her farm.

Michigan's "Golden Gulch" of Oil Ferne Houseknecht  with her plaque.

Ferne Houseknecht proudly displayed a plaque commemorating the oil well on her dairy farm. The Houseknecht No. 1 well of January 7, 1957, revealed the largest oilfield in Michigan.

The 1928 Mr. Pleasant oilfield had made that community the “Oil Capital of Michigan,” but on January 7, 1957, the Houseknecht No. 1 well in uncovered a vast petroleum basin — a geologic formation 29 miles long and more than a mile wide. Drilling her wildcat well took about 20 months to discover 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 produced from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone. The underground “trench,” which angled southeast to northwest, included parts of Hillsdale, Jackson, Calhoun and Eaton counties.

Making Hole in Michigan

According to Westbrook, Mrs. Houseknect had spent months convincing her uncle Clifford Perry to drill her well one pipe connection 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 oilfield legends,” explained Westbrook, retired managing editor of the Michigan Oil & Gas News

“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 noted. “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.”

Drilling began in May 1954, but it took a lot of time to drill — often with entire months off between work, reported Westbrook, who added the exploratory attempt receive little or no encouragement from state geologists and other petroleum industry experts. The venture’s limited financial support came from Houseknecht family and friends.

Michigan's "Golden Gulch" of Oil oilfield county map.

The southern oilfield revealed in 1957 in Hillsdale County (extending into Calhoun County) became the largest in Michigan, where the “Northern Pinnacle Reef Trend” also added to production.

Following its discovery, the giant oilfield became known as the Michigan’s golden gulch of oil — and “foster a boom on a discovery-hungry petroleum industry to end a 15 year major discovery drought in Michigan,” noted Westbrook, author of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35 year Michigan investment heritage in Michigan’s public recreation future.

Ferne Houseknecht’s wildcat well triggered a drilling boom that resulted in 734 wells producing more than 150 million barrels of oil and almost a quarter-trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the Albion-Scipio field in the southern Michigan basin. The formation represented a classic example of the region’s “fracture-controlled dolomite reservoir,” according to petroleum geologists.

As the 21st century began, Michigan’s oil and natural gas companies, armed with new detection and completion technology, 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.

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The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, created in the 1970s as an alliance of industry, government, and environmental groups, set an example for other producing states, according to Westbrook.

By 2010, Michigan produced over 1.25 billion barrels of oil and more than seven trillion feet of natural gas since the discovery of the . The state’s petroleum industry in 2010 had more than 14,000 producing wells. Of the new wells drilled that year, 116 wells were for development of proven reserves and 55 wells were exploratory — with 30 of those unsuccessful.

A 2004 special exhibit at Clarke Historical Library in Mount Pleasant described Michigan’s petroleum history with illustrated with examples from the library’s extensive holdings. Learn more in Michigan Petroleum History 

Established in 1934, the Michigan Oil And Gas Association represents the state’s petroleum exploration and production companies. Retired Michigan Oil & Gas News magazine Managing Editor Jack R. Westbrook authored At Home in Earlier Mt. Pleasant, Michigan: A visit with our neighbors of the past and other books about Michigan history. 

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Recommended Reading: American Oil And Gas History Book: Michigan’s Golden Gulch Of Oil: The Great Depression (2021); At Home in Earlier Mt. Pleasant Michigan: A visit with our neighbors of the past (2021); Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35-year Michigan Oil and Gas Industry Investment Heritage in Michigan’s Public Recreation Future (2011).

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Michigan’s Golden Gulch of Oil.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/michigan-oil-and-gas. Last Updated: January 2, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2014.

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