Petrolia Old Oil Town
14-A Monday, July 1, '74 DETROIT FREE PRESS Old rarnatics own r refers Beer Oil ri to D 1 wmmimMmn mmk'Casmm Irtfltfi'Miimi mir r. mum 1 1 t ' - . Free Press P'toto by JOE LIPPINCOTT Petrolia's first commercial oil well, sunk in 1857 by James M. Williams, stands like a monument to the wealth that once gushed o u t of t h e Ontario earth. BY BILL MICHELMORE Fret Presi Stiff Wnttr PETROLIA, Ontario A long time ago there was this crazy dirt farmer named Hugh Nixon Shaw who jumped up and down for days on end on a kind of wooden drill. He held a Bible in his hand as he jumped, so the story goes. People thought he was mad. They said he was an embarrassment to the town. 1 When he had driven the drill 160 feet into the ground by jumping up and down, a wonderful thing happened. Shaw hit the first oil gusht r in North America. HISTORICAL FACT, according to the World Book Encyclopedia: The first commercially successful oil well in North America was drilled near this small Canadian town in '357, two years before an oil strike at Titusville, Pa., long cherished b y Pennsylvania historians as the first. Petrolia (it's about a half-hour drive from Port Huron) became a boom town and its people became rich and lived in stately Victorian mansions on streets with names like Oil and Eureka. Petrolia became the center of the oil industry in North America. It was a wild town. Nine hotels. People came from all over the world to drill for Petrolia's oil. The social and cultural hub of the town was the opera house. There were always concerts and fancy dress balls and traveling theater companies performing there. But around 1900 the oil began to give out and the town sat around and watched itself die. The opera house became a shell. THIS WEEKEND the town celebrated its centennial and a Toronto theater group came to town to relive the moments of glory. The actors went around talking to old-timers and putting together a history of the town based on what made it great: oil. They called their play "Oil" and picked the old opera house as the focal point of the three day centennial weekend. But the townspeople on the centennial committee had their own ideas on celebrating. They decided the folks would rather drink beer in the arena and watch Dicky Dean, magician, and so they ordered old opera house to remain closed over the weekend. They invited the actors to come and drink beer at the beerfest and watch Dicky Dean do tricks. "We were hopping mad about it," said Bruce Hutchinson, 34, a local educator who is vice-chairman of the small organization that brought the actors to Petrolia and renovated the old opera house for the performance The theater people went ahead and performed their historical play anyway, opening the week preceding the centennial weekend. About 400 of the 550 seats in the opera house were filled for the opening night and the people said the play was excellent and very moving. Those praising it included a leading Toronto reviewer from the Globe and Mail. THE THEATER people asked the centennial committee to let them perform over the centennial weekend because that was a large part of what the centennial should be about. But the centennial committee chairman, Bob Boyd, stood his ground, insisting that the play would conflict with their own program: Dicky Dean on Friday Night, the beerfest on Saturday night, and the Hank Snow Show on Sunday night and the Beard growing awards on Monday night. The theater people couldn't " PORT HURON IAKE I HURON I 1 jj jl PETROLIA ? i LAKE C WINDSOR""' rY LAKE ERIE understand anything more. They asked that they be allowed to put on their play anyway, even if hardly anybody came. At least it would be there for those who would like to relive moments of glory in the old opera house. i The play did not go on. Maybe because much of the town really did die 70 years ago. Maybe it's hard to celebrate things like that. Today the area calls itself a farming community, but it is not farms you see. What you see is a graveyard of aban doned wells and drills broken and choked with weeds. THERE IS NO more commercial oil drilling in Petrolia. There is, however, an oil museum down the road in a place called Oil Springs. There assistant curator Donna McGuire tells tourists about the old field wheel which ran the jerker rods to each oil well. And she shows them the exotic Persian rugs that the Petrolia drillers brought back from foreign fields. One of Petrolia's most respected men, C. O Fairbank, who is 70, remembers the Persian rugs and days of old glory. His grandfather owned several hundred oil wells and pri-duced a 1,000 barrels a day. His father was an oil baron and lived in a mansion. The history of the town lay scattered on the floor of C. O. Fairbank's office in faded photographs and maps that he was arranging for a centennial exhibit. "There's not an oilfield in the world that hasn't had a Petrolia driller there," Fairbank said. "Petrolia drillers were in demand all over the world. Places like Burma and Persia. And when they would come back you'd see Persian rugs and stuffed boa constrictors in their homes." THE NAMES OF the foreign men who went to foreign fields are on an honor roll at the oil museum. Names like Jerry Trangmire and Spider Anderson and Sam Donald. They went to places like Burma in the early 1900s when the oil gave out around Petro-lia. They would go away for years and years, leaving wive and families behind, and many never came back because they died of malaria. Old Sam Donald came back. After 16 years in Burma. He's 87 now and lives with his wife in Oil Springs He sits on the front porch. He says he used to earn $1,000 a month drilling for oil in Burma. "I went out there in 1919 and came back in '36. I had to go somewhere because all I could do was drill for oil and there was no more oil around here anymore. "But before that, there was a boom here, I tell ya. But it comes to an end, y'know." He said he wouldn't be going to see the play at the old opera house. It's hard, as Sam Donald knows, to bring back the past.