Michigan’s “Golden Gulch” of Oil
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.”
The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield 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, revealed the massive oil and natural gas field.
It took more than two years of drilling, but the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovered 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.
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.
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 oilfield 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.
Ferne Houseknecht’s wildcat well triggered 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 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.
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.
Michigan had more than 14,000 producing wells in 2010. Of all wells drilled for petroleum thnat year, 116 wells were for development and 55 wells were exploratory. Thirty of the latter resulted in dry holes.
The Michigan Petroleum History exhibit at Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library in Mount Pleasant described the early days of Michigan’s petroleum history with illustrated with examples from the library’s extensive holdings.
The Michigan Oil And Gas Association, established in 1934, today represents companies active in oil and natural gas production.
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