As World War I neared its end in 1918, Maj. Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie entered the oil business in Yale, Oklahoma, by forming the Pawnee Bill Oil Company.
Despite not being as famous as his Wyoming friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Lillie was “widely known as a showman, a teacher and friend of the Indian and finally as a colonizer in Oklahoma and builder of his state,” according his biographer.
In 1908, the two Bills joined their shows to form “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East,” promoted as “a glorious cavalcade of dazzling brilliancy,” explains Glenn Shirley in his 1958 book Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie. The combined shows offered “an almost endless procession of delightful sight and sensations.”
However, times were changing and public taste was turning to a new form of entertainment, motion pictures. By 1913, the showmen’s partnership was over and their show foreclosed. Lillie turned to other ventures – real estate, banking, ranching, and like his former partner Cody, the U.S. petroleum industry.
Oil discoveries near Yale (population of only 685 in 1913) had created a drilling boom that made it home to 20 oil companies and 14 refineries. In 1916, Petrol Refining Company added a 1,000-barrel-a-day-capacity plant in Yale, about 25 miles south of Lillie’s Oklahoma ranch.
The trade magazine Petroleum Age reported that for Pawnee Bill, “the lure of the oil game was too strong to overcome.” He founded the Pawnee Bill Oil Company on February 25, 1918, and bought Petrol Refining’s new “skimming” refinery in March.
An early type of refining, skimming (or topping) removed light oils, gasoline and kerosene and left a residual oil that could also be sold as a basic fuel. To meet growing demand, refineries built west of the Mississippi River often used the inefficient but simple process. Lillie’s company became known as Pawnee Bill Oil & Refining and contracted with the Twin State Oil Company for oil from nearby leases in Payne County.
Under headlines like “Pawnee Bill In Oil” and “Hero of Frontier Days Tries the Biggest Game in All the World,” the Petroleum Age extolled that “Pawnee Bill, sole survivor of that heroic band of men who spread the romance of the frontier days over the world…who used to scout on the ragged edge of semi-savage civilization, is doing his bit to supply Uncle Sam and his allies with the stuff that enables armies to save civilization.”
By July 30, 1919, Pawnee Bill Oil (and Refining) Company had leased 25 railroad tank cars, each with a capacity of about 8,300 gallons. But the end of “the war to end all wars” drastically reduced demand for oil and refined petroleum products. By 1921, most Oklahoma refineries were operating at about 50 per cent capacity, with 39 plants shut down.
Although Lillie’s refinery was among those closed, he did not give up. In February 1921, he incorporated the Buffalo Refining Company and took over the Yale refinery’s operations. He was president and treasurer of the new company. By June 1922, the Yale refinery was making daily runs of 700 barrels of oil, about half its skimming capacity.
“At the annual stockholders’ meeting held at the offices of the Pawnee Bill Oil company in Yale, Oklahoma, in April, it was voted to declare an eight per cent dividend,” reported the Wichita Daily Eagle.
“The officers and directors have been highly complimented for their judicious and able handling, of the affairs of the company through the strenuous times the oil industry has passed through since the Armistice was signed,” added the Kansas newspaper. “Many of the Independent refineries have been sold at receivers’ sale. The financial condition of the Pawnee Bill company is in fine shape.”
What happened next remains a mystery since financial records of Pawnee Bill Oil Company are rare, but a 1918 stock certificate signed by Lillie is valued by collectors (it can be found online selling for about $2,500). Lillie’s Wyoming friend Cody also formed several oil exploration ventures, including the Shoshone Oil Company.
The stories of exploration and production companies joining petroleum booms (and avoiding busts) can be found updated in Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything? The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.