Meet Joe Roughneck

First “Joe Roughneck” monument dedicated in 1957.

 

Joe Roughneck’s rugged, square-jawed visage first appeared as the advertising face of an oilfield tubular goods manufacturer before becoming an industry award in 1955. His bust has been handed to top independent oil and gas company executives, dedicated in parks by Texas governors, and featured in newspaper and magazine articles.

Texas artist Torg Thompson bust of “Joe Roughneck.”

Texas artist Torg Thompson created printed and bronze versions of “Joe Roughneck” in the 1950s.

(more…)

Centennial Oil Stamp Issue

Millions of commemorative stamps recognized U.S. petroleum industry heritage in 1959.

 

A centennial oil stamp commemorating the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry was issued on August 27, 1959, by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who proclaimed: “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry. It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.” 

As the sesquicentennial of America’s 1859 first commercial oil discovery neared – a special committee sought U.S. Postal Service approval for a commemorative stamp for 2009. (more…)

Alley Oop’s Oil Roots

Popular cartoonist Victor Hamlin worked as an oilfield cartographer in West Texas.

The popular Depression Era comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a cartoonist who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps.

 

Alley Oop appeared for the first time in the summer of 1933 when Victor Hamlin, a former Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reporter, published the soon wildly popular tales about a caveman.

alley oop USA 32 cent 1992 commemorative stamp

A 1995 postage stamp commemorates Alley Oop by Victor Hamlin, a cartoonist from the Yates oil field company town of Iraan, Texas.

Hamlin began syndicating his daily cartoon in the Des Moines Register in Iowa. His Paleolithic Age idea for the comic strip, which soon would run in more than 800 newspapers, reportedly began in a small oil “company town” in the Permian Basin.

The West Texas oil town of Iraan (pronounced Eye-Rah-Ann) today proclaims itself as Hamlin’s inspiration for Alley Oop. Story begins with major oilfield discoveries in the Permian Basin, beginning with a 1920 discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County.

It was the stunning success of the Santa Rita No. 1 well in May 1923 that convinced independent oil companies to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.

Iraan first appeared as a company town following the discovery of the prolific Yates oilfield in October 1926. The town’s name combined names of the townsite owners, Ira and Ann Yates. Discovered in southeastern Pecos County, the Yates field brought prosperity to Midland, Odessa and other communities by producing more than 40 million barrels in just three years.

According to one comic strip historian, the cartoonist came up with the idea for Alley Oop while working in the Permian Basin oilfields. As Iraan boomed in the late 1920s, Hamlin, originally from Perry, Iowa, began working in Texas oilfields. “He could watch dinosaur bones being removed by the steam shovels and scrapers as they cleared the sites for drilling, wells, and pumps,” Mike Hanlon explains. Hamlin developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.

Steve Stiles noted in The Man Who Walked With Dinosaursthat Hamlin moved on to doing art for an oil industry publication and one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oilfields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory.”

Hamlin, who reportedly witnessed the first oil gusher at Iraan, worked as a cartographer for a petroleum company making site maps. The official start date of his Alley Oop as a daily comic strip was August 7, 1933. Alley Oop started life in the imaginary prehistoric nation of Moo. A popular Sunday page began September 9, 1934. 

The biggest days of roughnecking were over in Iraan by 1960 – when the band “The Hollywood Argyles” sang Alley Oop was “the toughest man there is alive.” The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.

Tourists visit the Alley Oop Museum and R.V. Park on the northwest edge of Iraan. Thanks to improved recovery techniques, oil production from Yates oil wells continues – and the field is estimated to have one billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining.

Although Hamlin retired in 1971 and died in 1993, his daily strips (now by Jack and Carole Bender) today appear in 600 newspapers. Alley Oop was one of 20 U.S. Postal Service commemorative Comic Strip Classics postage stamp series in 1995. When visiting West Texas, stop by Iraan and visit the Alley Opp Park and Fantasy Land.

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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Alley Oop’s Oil Roots.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/alley-oop-origin-in-permian-basin. Last Updated: February 18, 2020. Original Published Date: August 2, 2015.

Oil in the Land of Oz

Did L. Frank Baum’s Castorine Company of 1883 inspire the Tin Man?

 

The Tin Man’s oil can in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields – where L. Frank Baum founded a petroleum lubricant business before becoming the world-famous children’s book author.

“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” explained Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.

Illustration from 1900 children's book Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Before publishing his children’s book in 1900, L. Frank Baum sold a popular axle oil from a company he founded in Syracuse, New York.

Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother started an oil products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.

 Baum's Castorine Company axle oil ad, circa 1880s

L. Frank Baum – whose father found success in Pennsylvania oilfields – served as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which he founded with his brother on July 9, 1883.

The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oil for a living. In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their small business offering lubricants, oils, greases – and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

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Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years.

oil can

L. Frank Baum’s sales trips may have influenced Oz. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

“He was a traveling salesman for the company,” noted a 2011 exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

The Kalamazoo exhibit’s text also explained that although the petroleum lubricating company enjoyed some success, the business “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”

Baum wrote of his Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.” The frustrated businessman sold the oil venture. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.

Son of a Successful Oilman

L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum – one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood. Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.

Baum's Castorine products tin advertising sign

Baum’s Castorine products “are designed to extend machine life and reduce your maintenance costs.”

In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. “Frankie” was then only four and a half years old. Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run would bring his enterprising father great wealth.

“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” wrote Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book, L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.

“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers reported. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”

By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company and was a well-established oilman. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man.

When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.

The Pioneer Oil Museum of New York

L. Frank Baum’s father once owned an oil company in Bolivar, New York, where a museum today exhibits the region’s extensive petroleum history. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” according to historian Ronald G. Taylor. “The plant, owned by B.W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships.” 

However, there was no longer unlimited free enterprise in the oil fields, added Rogers in her book. “John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution. In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”

Although the Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the plan, Baum continued to find success by discovering productive wells in New York.

In 1887, after almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum died in New York. His father’s prosperity in the oil business permitted Frank to pursue writing, publishing journals and writing for the stage. There were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil region; Benjamin Baum – thanks to income from his oil profits – had acquired several small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania, perhaps setting the stage for his son’s future.

Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can

When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life – and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.

detail from 1919 OZ book by L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum sold his Baum’s Castorine Company in 1888. His many Castorine sales trips may have led to the idea of a Tin Woodman character for his book, illustrated by W.W. Denslow.

“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explained, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. Schwartz also discovered the company still manufactured industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.

“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz wrote.

“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he noted. “What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”

Learn about the historic Allegheny petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil in the Land of Oz.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/l-frank-baum-castorine-oil. Last Updated: July 6, 2020. Original Published Date: June 1, 2005.

 

Smithsonian’s Hall of Petroleum

Museum exhibits once included drilling, production, and transportation technologies.

 

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum,” which opened in the summer of 1967, devoted an entire wing to oilfield exhibits. The historic collection included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks, and other oilfield exhibits.

With a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., offers few relating to the U.S. petroleum exploration and production technologies. It wasn’t always so. In June 1967, an entire wing of exhibits – the “Hall of Petroleum” – opened at the popular museum on the National Mall. 

Smithsonian hall of transportation oil truck

Oil history today has a small role in the Smithsonian’s “America on the Move” exhibit. Photos by Bruce Wells.

Thousands of visitors viewed the petroleum history – including examples of exploration and production technological advancements. Rows of old and new equipment highlighted exhibit hall – in what became part of the National Museum of American History in 1980. As tourists entered the hall, they were greeted by a giant 13-foot-by-56-foot mural by Delbert Jackson (1915-1982), a renowned Tulsa artist. (more…)

Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Thousands of glass-negative images preserve earliest scenes of U.S. petroleum industry.

 

Soon after the first American oil well of 1859 launched the U.S. petroleum industry in northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England made his living as a photographer among the wooden derricks and engine houses. John A. Mather would become known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

Mather set up his first studio in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in October 1860. It was an ideal location for documenting the people and evolving drilling technologies of the new petroleum industry. He would become the oil and natural gas industry’s premier photographer, amassing a more than 20,000 glass plate negatives.

oilfield photographer John Mather Edwin Drake at his oil well

This iconic but often misidentified photograph by John A. Mather shows Edwin L. Drake (at right) with a friend standing in front of the rebuilt engine house and derrick at the original site of America’s first commercial oil well of 1859. A fire recently had claimed the original structure. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

What famed photographers Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on Civil War battlefields, Mather accomplished in Pennsylvania’s oil region. Like Brady, Mather (1829-1915) abandoned one-of-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in favor of wet plate negatives using collodion – a flammable, syrupy mixture also called “nitrocellulose.” With one plate, many paper copies of an image could be printed and sold.

oilfield photographer John Mather self portrait

John A. Mather, probably a circa 1900 self-portrait.

Preparing, exposing, and developing such glass negatives was difficult and best suited for portraits of motionless subjects in a studio. Mather photographed the newly famous as well as ordinary townspeople and babies.

But unlike others, Mather transported his studio camera and chemicals into the industrial chaos of early Pennsylvania oilfields, where he became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

Like most of western Pennsylvanians, Mather also was susceptible to “oil fever,” and he hoped to drill a few successful wells.

Having narrowly missed the opportunity for a one-sixteenth share of the Sherman Well, which would be “best single strike of the year,” Mather and three associates invested in several wells near Pithole Creek. He proved to be better at using a camera,

Mather’s investment in exploratory wells at Pithole Creek did not lead to commercial quantities of oil. He tried again on the Holmden Farm off West Pithole Creek. His unsuccessful effort was among the last wells to be drilled at the infamous oil boom town of Pithole.

Years later, Mather acknowledged that excitement of the Pithole drilling boom was so great that he temporarily “forsook photography for the oil business.”

Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio traveled up and down Oil Creek as he produced more than 16,000 glass negatives, later described by the trade magazine Petroleum Age as, “so perfect in finish it stands the test of time.”

oilfield photographer John Mather sitting in his studio

John Mather photographs courtesy Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine and Drake Well Museum, Titusville. Above, the interior of this Titusville studio, circa 1865.

Many tried, but few people in the increasingly crowded oil region would rival the wealth of the celebrated “Coal Oil Johnny.”

Floods and Fires: Disaster at Oil Creek

On Sunday morning June 5, 1892, and after weeks of rain, Oil Creek’s overflowing Spartansburg Dam failed at about 2:30 a.m. A wall of water and debris swelled towards Titusville and its oil works, seven miles downstream.

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“On rushed the mad waters, tearing away bridge after bridge, carrying away horses, homes and people,” one newspaper reported about the flood’s devastation. Then fire erupted from ruptured benzine and oil storage tanks.

oilfield photographer John Mather oilfield images of workers and derricks

Oilfield workers pose on and among their oil derricks and engine houses in this 1864 John Mather photo from the Drake Well Museum collection in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Newspapers all over America carried stories of the disaster. In Montana, the Helena Independent headlines included: “Waters of an Overflowing Creek Become a Rushing Mass of Flames” mourning victims, reported the “Spared by the Deluge Only to Become the Prey of the Fire.”

oilfield photographer John Mather women and children at oil town

John Mather’s photographs documented family life in remote early oil boom towns. He also briefly caught “oil fever” and unsuccessfully invested in a few wells in booming Pithole Creek field.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added: “The Waters Subside and The Flames Die Away, Revealing the Full Extent of the Calamity.” Oil City and Titusville were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth.” Mather’s studio flooded to a depth of five feet, destroying expensive equipment and most of his life’s work of prints from glass plate negatives.

photographer John Mather 1892 fire at Oil Creek steam  fire engines

Pennsylvania oil towns were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth” by an 1892 fire and flood that destroyed thousands of Mather’s prints and glass plates. Photo from Drake Well Museum collection.

As the fires and flood continued, Mather set up his camera and photographed the disaster in progress with his bulky equipment, which already was being rendered obsolete by new imaging technologies.

oilfield photographer John Mather  and his floating studio barge

John Mather often used a floating darkroom to capture his historic images along Oil Creek.

Just a  few years before the Titusville flood, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced celluloid roll film and created an entirely new market: amateur snapshot photography. Expertise in preparing fragile glass plates and dangerous chemicals were no longer required. Instead, Kodak offered, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

As oil booms moved to discoveries in other states, including the massive 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas, Mather worked little in his later years. His financial circumstances diminished with age and illness. The artist of Oil Creek died poor and without fanfare on August 23, 1915, in Titusville. His death certificate reported the cause as cerebral hemorrhage, “complicated by suppression of urine.”

To preserve John A. Mather’s petroleum industry legacy, the Drake Well Memorial Association would purchase 3,274 surviving glass negatives for about 30 cents each. Today, the Drake Well Museum and surrounding park allow visitors to see rare artifacts and a visual record of the early U.S. oil and natural industry. Visit it and other Pennsylvania petroleum museums.

More John A. Mather Resources

“Virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, and completely unappreciated — in these few words is a description of John Aked Mather, pioneer photographer, whose skill, devotion, and energy endowed the petroleum industry with one of the finest pictorial records of growth and development of any early all-American industry,” proclaimed Ernest C. Miller and T.K.Stratton in their January 1972 article, “Oildon’s Photographic Historian,” in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Volume 55, Number 1).

“Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions,” explain Stephanie David and Brennen French in “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio” for NWPaHeritage, documenting the history of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfield Photographer John Mather.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/oilfield-photographer-john-mather. Last Updated: June 1, 2020. Original Published Date: March 11, 2005.

 

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