May 17, 1882 – Mystery Well Production revealed –

The true oil production of a closely guarded discovery well in the Warren County, Pennsylvania, township of Cherry Grove was revealed. The sudden news about the 646 Mystery Well, operated by the Jamestown Oil Company, sent shock waves through early oil market centers.

Wooden derrick at the 646 Mystery Well at Cherry Grove, PA.

In 2007, a group of Cherry Grove volunteers rebuilt a derrick for their 646 Mystery Well, notes historian Walt Atwood.

“The excitement in the oil exchanges was indescribable,” noted Paul H. Giddens in The Birth of the Oil Industry. “Over 4,500,000 barrels of oil were sold in one day on the exchanges in Titusville, Oil City and Bradford.”

Although the Cherry Grove discovery demoralized the market and drove oil prices down to less than 50 cents per barrel, hundreds of derricks appeared around Cherry Grove and thousands of people moved there while the boom lasted. It was short lived, according to volunteers of Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day Committee, which has kept the “Oil Excitement” memory alive with special events on the last Sunday of every June. Learn more in Cherry Grove Mystery Well.

May 17, 1901 – Gulf Oil begins at Spindletop Hill


James M. Guffey organized Guffey Petroleum Company to buy the famous “Lucas Gusher” well drilled the previous January at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas. Guffey purchased about half of the well’s high-volume oil production (the Mellon family of Pittsburgh owned the remainder). Guffey created Gulf Refining Company to refine and market the oil produced by Guffey Petroleum. In 1907, Andrew Mellon would acquire the J.M. Guffey Petroleum and Gulf Refining companies of Texas and reorganized the ventures as Gulf Oil Company.

May 17, 1973 – Last Nuclear fracking of Natural Gas Well

Atomic Energy Commission scientists conducted the last experiment of the Plowshare Program with a nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a Colorado natural gas well. Project Rio Blanco was the third and final underground detonation to test nuclear fracturing of gas wells.

The first had been Project Gasbuggy in 1967, when a 29-kiloton nuclear device successfully fractured a New Mexico well, but produced radioactive gas. A second experiment, Project Rulison, detonated a 40-kiloton device in a Garfield County, Colorado, well in 1969.

May 19, 1885 – Lima Oilfield discovered in Ohio

Ohio’s petroleum industry began when Benjamin C. Faurot found oil at Lima in the northwestern part of the state. He had been searching for natural gas in the prolific Trenton Rock Limestone (see Indiana Natural Gas Boom).  “If the well turns out, as it looks now that it will, look out for the biggest boom Lima ever had,” proclaimed Lima’s Daily Republican newspaper. 

Circa 1909 oil gusher post card promoting Lima, Ohio, Oilfields.

A circa 1909 post card promoting the petroleum prosperity of Lima, Ohio.

Faurot organized the Trenton Rock Oil Company, and by 1886 the Lima oilfield was producing more than 20 million barrels of oil, the most in the nation. The Lima field’s heavy oil needed special refining, and Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in 1889 began construction on the Whiting refinery. Faurot built a Lima opera house and petroleum wealth helped pay for an electrified city street car system.

Learn more in Great Oil Boom of Lima, Ohio.

May 19, 1942 – Oklahoma Inventor patents Portable Drilling Rig

A pioneer in oilfield technologies, George E. Failing of Enid, Oklahoma, received a patent for his design of a drilling rig on a truck bed. “I designate the rear portion of a drilling rig such as used in drilling shallow wells, the taking of cores, drilling of shot-holes, and performing similar oil field operations,” Failing noted in his patent for a design he first built in 1931.

“In 1931 he mounted an existing rig on a 1927 Ford farm truck, adding a power take-off assembly to transfer power from the truck engine to the drill,” noted Kathy Dickson of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Failing would receive more than 300 patents for oilfield tools, “from rock bit cores to an apparatus for seismic surveying.”

George Failing portable drilling rig patent drawing.

George Failing’s drilling rig – powered by its truck’s engine – will prove ideal for slanted wells.

Failing’s portable rig could drill ten slanted, 50-foot holes in a single day, while a traditional steam-powered rotary rig took about a week to set up and drill to a similar depth. He demonstrated his portable drilling technology at a 1933 well disaster in Conroe, Texas, working with H. John Eastman, today considered the father of directional drilling. Learn more in Technology and the “Conroe Crater.” 

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The simple, efficient rig Failing designed would help millions of people in developing countries by drilling water wells. Today the Enid-based GEFCO (George E. Failing Company) still manufactures portable drilling rigs. The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid displays a Failing rig.

May 20, 1930 – Geophysicists establish Professional Society

Earth scientists gathered in Houston to found the Society of Economic Geophysicists, to foster “the ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources.” The professional society adopted the name Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) in 1937. 

Doodlebugger statue by sculptor Jay O'Melia at SEG headquarters..

The “Doodlebugger” by Oklahoma sculptor Jay O’Melia has welcomed visitors to SEG headquarters since 2002. Photo by Bruce Wells.

SEG’s journal Geophysics appeared in 1936 with articles about the petroleum industry’s three major prospecting methods then — seismic, gravity, and magnetic. The journal once warned young geophysicists about employing “black magic” or “doodle-bug” methods based on unproven properties of oil, minerals or geological formations.

The Doodlebugger, a 10-foot bronze statue by Oklahoma sculptor Jay O’Melia, was unveiled in SEG’s Tulsa headquarters in 2002. O’Melia also sculpted the “Oil Patch Warrior,” a World War II memorial dedicated in 1991 in the United Kingdom (see Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest). SEG today has 14,000 members in 114 countries.

May 21, 1923 – “Esso” first used by Standard Oil Company

Standard Oil Company of New Jersey first used “Esso” to market the company’s “Refined, Semi-refined, and Unrefined Oils Made from Petroleum, Both With and Without Admixture of Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral Oils, for Illuminating, Burning, Power, Fuel, and Lubricating Purposes, and Greases.”

Esso gas station logo 1923 to 1926.

Standard Oil’s Esso gas station logo from 1923 to 1926. Image courtesy ExxonMobile.

The phonetic spelling of the abbreviation “S.O.” – Standard Oil – became a registered trademarked in 1923, and a young Theodore Geisell began drawing Essolube product ads in the 1930s. Exxon, now ExxonMobil, replaced the U.S. Esso brand in 1973.Learn more in Seuss I am, an Oilman.

May 23, 1905 – Patent issued for Improved Metal Barrel

Henry Wehrhahn, superintendent for Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, Brooklyn, New York, patented his design for a ribbed metal barrel, “durable in construction and effective in operation.” His invention, which presaged the modern 55-gallon oil drum, allowed a lid to be “readily secured to and detached from the body of the barrel, and so constructed and arranged as to protect the locking mechanism of the head and permit the barrel when desired to stand on the end.”

In December 1905, Wehrhahn received a second patent, which he assigned rights to Robert Seaman, founder of Iron Clad Manufacturing, husband of journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. Learn more in the Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum.

May 23, 1937 – Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller Dies

Almost 70 years after founding Standard Oil Company in Ohio and 40 years after retiring from the company in 1897, John D. Rockefeller died in Ormond Beach, Florida, at age 97. His petroleum empire had peaked in 1912.

John D. Rockefeller, circa 1935.

John Rockefeller, 1839-1937. Photo courtesy of Cleveland State University.

Born July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York, Rockefeller attended high school in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1853 to 1855. He became an assistant bookkeeper with a produce shipping company before forming his own company in 1859 — the same year of the first U.S. oil well in Pennsylvania. In 1865, at age 24, he took control of his first refinery, which would become the largest in the world in three years.

Rockefeller already had given away millions of dollars by the time his fortune peaked at $900 million in 1912 (about $25 billion in 2021 dollars). His unprecedented wealth funded the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, (now the Rockefeller Foundation), and Spelman College in Atlanta.


Recommended Reading: Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania (2000);  Ohio Oil and Gas, Images of America (2008); Geophysicist Career Guide (2018); Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America (2012); Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (2004); Standard Oil Company: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Famous Monopoly (2016). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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