Oil discoveries in the 1920s would lead to finding the state’s only giant oilfield in 1957.
A 1961 Clare County historical marker explains Michigan petroleum history began in 1886, but that Michigan State Geologist Alexander Winchell had reported that oil and natural gas deposits lay under Michigan’s surface as 1860.
“First commercial oil production was at Port Huron, where 22 wells were drilled, beginning in 1886,” the marker continues. “Total output was small. Michigan’s first oil boom was at Saginaw, where production began about 1925. About three hundred wells were drilled here by 1927, when Muskegon’s ‘Discovery Well’ drew oil men from all over the country to that field.”
“Michigan Oil & Gas History,” a 2005 Clarke Historical Library exhibit at Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant. Photo by Kris Wells.
The Clare County historical marker notes that the Mt. Pleasant field, discovered in 1928, “helped make Michigan one of the leading oil producers of the eastern United States. Mount Pleasant became known as the “Oil Capital of Michigan.”
Central Michigan University Oil Exhibit
In the summer of 2005, a special petroleum exhibit opened at Central Michigan University’s (CMU) Clarke Historical Library, Mount Pleasant.
“They work hard, take risks, prosper, and by and large benefit everybody,” noted Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Historical Library, about oil and natural gas producers. “What I didn’t understand about the industry is that these people all know each other.”
Frank Boles (top), director of the Clarke Historical Library, designed an exhibit creatively combining documents and photographs to capture the attention of students. Photos by Kris Wells.
The library told their story with an “Oil and Natural Gas in Michigan” exhibit.
The state’s abundant oil production comes as a surprise to many, said Boles, who put the exhibit together with the cooperation of the Michigan Oil & Gas Association and the Michigan Oil & Gas Producers Educational Foundation.
Jack Westbrook, retired managing editor of Michigan Oil & Gas News magazine, marshaled the resources and worked tirelessly to ensure success, Boles said. “In a very real sense, there would be no exhibit if it were not for Jack.”
The exhibit was designed to designed to pique a visitor’s curiosity – and be transportable. The region’s students learned that Mount Pleasant, home to CMU, had its own oil boom in 1928 and today is known as the historical center of Michigan’s oil industry.
Exhibit visitors learned that more than 57,000 oil and gas wells had been drilled in their state since 1925 — and that Michigan ranks 17th in nationwide oil production and 11th in natural gas. More surprises awaited those students who looked more closely, Boles said.
“We’re about usage,” he explained. “Our profit is people coming in, using our resources, and hopefully learning something. We want our exhibits to prompt them to dig deeper.”
Golden Gulch of Oil
Clarke Historical Library visitors learned about late 1920s oil discoveries and that after decades of dry holes or small oil finds, a January 7, 1957, Houseknecht No. 1 well revealed Michigan’s largest oilfield, 29-miles-long. Ferne Houseknecht had convinced her uncle, Clifford Perry, to take time between his other farm projects to drill the historic well. Learn more in Michigan’s ‘Golden Gulch’ of Oil.
For the exhibit, Boles used just six walls and eleven cabinets to tell this and other stories, so careful planning was essential. He said that from the project’s outset, pursuit of community support, resources, and partners was essential.
Proudly showing off his homemade cable tool rig in 1932, Earl “Red” Perry Jr., 12, was the nephew of Cliff Perry — who would discover Michigan’s largest oilfield on January 7, 1957.
The exhibit began with storyboarding and the interactive process of writing and rewriting proposed text. Large photo formats with understandable text dominated the walls, while display cases featured unique artifacts and documents.
Visitors discovered a rich oil history and learned of the complex environmental issues Michigan has successfully addressed.
The 1970s “Pigeon River State Forest” ecological controversy was presented – along with its innovative solution. In 1976, Michigan became the first state in the nation to earmark state revenue generated through mineral, including oil and gas, activity for acquisition and improvement of environmentally sensitive or public recreation lands.
According to Jack Westbrook, all 83 Michigan counties have benefited from the fund’s $635 million collected from oil and gas revenues — and other states followed Michigan’s example. His book, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35 year Michigan investment heritage in Michigan’s public recreation future, can be found on Amazon Books (link below).
Visit the Clarke Historical Library.
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); Handbook of Petroleum Refining Processes (2016).
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an annual AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Michigan Petroleum History.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/energy-education-resources/exhibiting-michigan-petroleum-history. Last Updated: January 2, 2021. Original Published Date: June 19, 2014.
Exhibits in the rustic hills of western Pennsylvania preserve a remarkable mechanical history of America.
A collection of buildings, artifacts, and outdoor engine exhibits are part of an unusual museum that can be found near Little Sandy Creek, just off Colonel Drake highway 36, about 10 miles northwest of Punxsutawney.
An impressive collection of historic engines, many of them lovingly restored and maintained by volunteers, educates visitors about the evolution of internal combustion engine technology that put an end to the age of steam.
The Cool Spring Power Museum’s long-time director spent decades collecting and preserving hundreds of historic engines of all shapes and sizes. In a 2004 interview, Dr. Paul E. Harvey explained why the collection was important.
The Coolspring Power Museum opened in 1985 near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It has the largest collection of historically significant stationary gas engines in the country, if the not the world. Photo courtesy Coolspring Power Museum.
“Internal combustion engines revolutionized the world around the turn of the 20th century in much the same way that steam engines did a century before,” noted Dr. Harvey, who co-founded the museum in 1985 about midway between between Punxsutawney and Brookville, Pennsylvania.
“One has only to imagine a coal-fired, steam-powered, airplane to realize how important internal combustion was to the industrialized world,” added Dr. Harvey, a medical doctor.
The museum hosts many summer events, including a “History Day and Car, Truck & Tractor Show.” Photo by Bruce Wells.
According to Dr. Harvey, permanent exhibits at Coolspring include stationary gas “hit and miss” engines, throttle governed engines, flame ignition engines, hot tube ignition engines, and hot air engines ranging in size from a fractional horsepower up to 600 horsepower.
Many engine enthusiasts from around the country have sent significant pieces for display, he said. The grounds, as well as semi-annual shows, have expanded with visitors from Maine to California, as well as Canada and England.
Dr. Harvey explained that early internal combustion engines produced only a few horsepower and could not replace steam engines in most applications, but by 1890 they were powerful enough for most portable or remote operations as well as many small manufacturers.
By 1900 the new power technology was replacing reciprocating steam engines for electric generation, Dr. Harvey noted. “By 1915 they were being considered for all but the largest installations where steam turbines have since dominated,” he added. Dr. Harvey and fellow enthusiast John Wilcox began collecting engines in the 1950s. Their collections were the basis of displays that would greatly multiply.
The museum is housed in 20 buildings that, besides its own large collection, contain many pieces placed there on loan. Dr. Harvey said the purpose of Coolspring was “to be the foremost collection of early internal combustion technology presented in an educational and visitor-oriented manner and to provide an operation that will gain support and generate substantial growth.”
Dr. Paul Harvey, co-founder of the Coolspring Power Museum in Pennsylvania, next to a 175 HP Otto engine he restored with help of museum volunteers. Photo courtesy the Coolspring Power Museum.
The collection documents the early history of the internal combustion revolution. Almost all of the critical components of today’s engines have their origins in the period represented by the collection (as well as hundreds of innovations no longer used). Some of the engines represent real engineering progress; others are more the product of inventive minds avoiding previous patents. All tell a story.
Although the museum’s focus is on stationary engines (with perhaps the largest collection in the world), Dr. Harvey explained that no museum of internal combustion engines would be complete without at least a few vehicles in its collection. Among the antique heavy trucks and semis, is a rare petroleum well service rig.
The Hanley & Bird Well Bailing Machine was designed to clean a well by lifting water, sand, and debris from the bottom of the well using a “bailer” attached to a cable, noted the museum director.
A “last of its kind” Hanley & Bird Well Bailing Machine from the Pennsylvania oilfields. Photo courtesy Coolspring Power Museum.
Five of the devices were built; the Coolspring Power Museum’s example is the only one to survive. “It was donated to the museum by EXCO Resources, the successor to H&B,” Dr. Harveys said. “It is very interesting as it uses a chain drive Mack rear end and a Ford front axle.”
Dr. Harvey recalled seeing the Hanley & Bird Well Bailing Machine driving through Coolspring on its way to service local natural gas wells. He said that the museum today displays it with the mast raised and ready to work. “It certainly shows the ingenuity of the local gas industry,” he reported.
The Coolspring Power Museum collection includes many engines used to power multiple wells in America’s first oilfields. The museum is off Route 36 midway between Punxsutawney and Brookville in western Pennsylvania.
As the steam engines revolutionized the world in the 1800s, the internal combustion engines on exhibit at the Coolspring Power Museum did the same at the start of the 20th century, according to Dr. Harvey.
“You have only to imagine a coal-fired, steam-powered, airplane to realize how important internal combustion was to the industrialized world,” the doctor added with a chuckle. The Coolspring Power Museum hosts events in the spring and summer, including the popular “History Day and Car, Truck & Tractor Show.”
Recommended Reading: Around Titusville, Pa., Images of America (2004); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank (2008); A History of the New York International Auto Show: 1900-2000 (2000). 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 annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information: Article Title: “Cool Coolspring Power Museum.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/energy-education-resources/cool-coolspring-power-museum. Last Updated: November 1, 2021. Original Published Date: September 1, 2005.
Oil patch historian pens definitive Drake biography in Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry
The man who would create the American petroleum industry was down to his last few pennies in August 1859. A letter was on its way from the company that had hired him to drill a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The letter instructed him to close operations.
“As far as the company was concerned, the project was finished,” noted William Brice, PhD, in his detailed 2009 biography of Edwin L. Drake. “Fortunately that letter was not delivered until after they found oil.”
On Saturday afternoon on August 27, at a depth of 69.5 feet, the drill bit had dropped into a crevice. Late the following afternoon Drake’s driller, “Uncle Billy” Smith, visited the site “and noticed a very dark liquid floating on top of the water in the hole, which, when sampled, turned out to be oil,” Brice explained.
Drake’s Folly, as it was known to locals, was not such a folly after all, “for Drake had shown that large quantities of oil could be found by drilling into the earth. And so began the modern petroleum industry,”
Commissioned in 2007 by the Oil Region Alliance in Oil City, Pa., to write a new Drake biography, Brice, professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, published his 661-page Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.
The book, part of the 2009 celebration of the 150th anniversary of America’s first oil well, includes more than 200 pages of reference material and dozens of rare images.
“Bill dug through the history related to Drake as no one has before, and the result is a much more complete picture of the man, his family and his accomplishments,” proclaimed geologist and editor of the Oilfield Journal Kathy J. Flaherty.
“Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry is a well-written account of Drake and his times — and the history and significance of his 1859 discovery,” added Bruce Wells of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. “Bill Brice provides the careful research needed to sort out the nonsense and brilliance of the man who established the American petroleum industry.”
A Johnstown resident, Pennsylvania, Brice was on the Pitt-Johnstown faculty from 1971 through 2005 and was a visiting professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to 2002. Brice received the Distinguished Service Award from the History of Geology Division of the Geological Society of America in 2008. He has been president of the Petroleum History Institute and editor of its journal, Oil-Industry History.
“August 27, 1859, is one of those dates on which the world changed, Brice proclaimed in 2009. “Edwin Drake’s quest to find oil by drilling was a success, and the modern oil and gas industry took a giant leap forward.
Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Edwin Drake and his Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/energy-education-resources/edwin-l-drake-oil-well. Last Updated: November 8, 2021. Original Published Date: August 1, 2009.