Field Trip to Oil Springs

This past Friday we took a Public History field trip to Oil Springs, just over an hour west of London. When I first heard that we were going there, I envisioned a small museum, in a little town, that housed a mishmash of documents and artifacts pertaining to the super exciting topic of oil! (note the sarcasm). Well was I wrong! My americanized idea of the founding of oil, from the film There Will be Blood, and the current sites of oil production, Western Canada, oil rigs on the Gulf of Mexico, and the Far East, was greatly altered upon hearing that Oil Springs was where the first gusher in the world occurred in 1862, and the area was a hot spot for early oil production.

When we arrived in Oil Springs, instead of the continuation of a farm field landscape, it was altered by hundreds of oil rigs, bobbing away attached by lines and lines of pulleys. What strange contraptions….

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Upon arriving at the museum, I was surprised by the great amount of outdoor displays pertaining  to early oil production in the area. Our first stop was an introduction video in the theatre room of the museum (that’s right newer technology, not at small underfunded museum after all!) The video was great, it took us back in time to early ‘Black Creek,’ which was the original name of the town before oil was struck in 1858. Through the diaries of an early wife, who had settled with her husband on inexpensive land, in a very isolated setting; amongst the coyotes and deer, she tells the story of the beginnings of oil and its eventual take off in the area. One can only imagine the early life that she and her husband would have had before the oil hunters arrived; it would have been a very lonely existence. The first to arrive and begin surveying for ‘black gold,’ was the Tripp brothers, Charlie and Henry, who had heard of black gum rising up around Lambton County. They were the first to discover oil in the 1850s, but they didn’t have the technology to extract it from the earth. James Miller Williams was the second one to arrive and test his luck. In 1858 he struck oil and changed the oil industry, through recovering, transporting, refining and marketing the commodity. He was the first one to utilize oil on a large scale. That same year the railway line arrived just to the north, bringing with it the great potential to market the oil across Canada and into the United States. At this time there was a large need for oil, as people relied on it for lamp oil; this need has greatly been increased as oil is utilized for numerous products today.

In 1861, a twenty-nine year old surveyor, John Henry Fairbanks arrived in Oil Springs. That year he struck oil and the fever set in for extracting the substance. He developed a new method for extracting oil faster, this was the ‘jerker line system,’ in which a series of rods close to ground transferred the power of one engine to 20 wells. This greatly changed oil production, as others began to use the system. By 1900, John Henry was the largest producer of oil in Canada, producing 24, 000 barrels a year. The little town of Oil Springs was now on the map.

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The derricks that covered the early landscape.

John Henry’s great grandson, Charles (Charlie) continues the operations of the family business today, with 350 wells on 600 acres and a staff of six. After the video, Charles took us on a tour of his property, opening our eyes to how the oil is produced, the work he and his family have completed over the years, and the larger influence of oil today in all aspects of life.

Charlie began work on the family oil industry at the age of 28, and fell in love with the production of the ‘black gold’ substance. This pride in his family history and in the production of oil is evident in his work of preserving oil heritage and bringing researchers to the area. All over his property, there are metal sculptured people working away on the old oil rig sites, providing visitors with great visual insight into early productions.

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It is interesting that each character represents an actual individual that worked for Fairbanks Oil, and Charlie introduced us to each one.

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The engine room above in full operation, continuing to utilize the early technology.

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The jerking line system above, coming out of the engine room. These lines cover a large portion of the fairbanks property.

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The large derrick on the left was where Hugh Nixon Shaw, broke through the bedrock, and hit the world’s first oil gusher. More than 2,000  barrels of oil a day shot above the tree tops! Sadly, after years of hard work, Shaw died from the oil toxins a couple years after the gusher.

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Charlie in the old blacksmith shop, which now houses a large amount of oil production tools. Any older man’s dream collection of tools.

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The Fairbanks’ barn, with a mural depicting early operations, painted in 1981 to commemorate the 120 year anniversary.

The tour with Charlie was fantastic, he was such an interesting man with lots of great knowledge and passion for the oil industry. It is wonderful to see his love and work for preserving his family heritage and that of the oil industry.

Back at the museum, we toured through the galleries. Looking at tools used in the production of oil, early oil lamps, along with photographs of the early ‘hard oilers’ and their family history. The part I greatly enjoyed was the stories and artefacts obtained from those local ‘hard oilers’ that went abroad.  When oil production started to take off elsewhere in the world, local workers from Oil Springs journeyed to these regions to aid in operations. They brought back with them great stories and treasures from around the world. The museum offers an interactive glimpse into these stories for the visitor through a replica safari tent, which has three projectors and a touch screen. The visitor can click on a country to hear a story, told by a very charismatic tour guide (The man sitting down in the picture below, on the middle screen).

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I thought this was very well put together! I greatly enjoyed getting to see all the artefacts from around the world, with the exception of the 30 foot anaconda skin, quickly by-passed that case! After seeing all the inside galleries, we looked around the museum grounds outside, where they have a three pole derrick,  the first commercial well, an old hearth, black smith shop, train station, old tanker wagon, oil and gas building and post office.

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The museum and its welcoming staff were great. I definitely recommend to anyone, those interested in oil production or not, to visit the museum and step back in time to a important part of our Canadian history.

Sources and for more information:

Fairbank Oil. http://www.fairbankoil.com

Hard Oiler! The Story of Canadians’ Quest for Oil at Home and Abroad. By Gary May. 

The Oil Springs Museum.

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