Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Oil in the Kankakee Valley

(from the June 27, 1984, Lowell Tribune, page 19)

Centuries before the pioneers arrived in this area, petroleum was being used by ancient civilizations. Asphalt was used as early as 2800 B.C. for embalming, boat caulking, buildings and roads. The floor of an ancient temple, still intact, was made of stones set in asphalt.

The Chinese drilled for oil as early as 220 B.C., but most of the early wells were dug by hand. Lighter oils were used for cooking and illumination, and for the treatment of skin diseases on both humans and animals.

The experts agree that petroleum was probably formed from the remains of many species of marine plants and animals which abounded in prehistoric times in shallow, land-locked seas. Later these areas buckled and folded, forming arches and troughs. Petroleum is generally found in these arches far below the surface of the earth.

Our pioneers had some need for oils and greases -- to lubicate their wagon wheels, soften their harnesses, and light their lamps. Their need for the product grew as time went by, and inventors were busy making machines and equipment which required lubrication.

Before 1859, the annual production of petroleum from seepages was very low, less than 16 barrels in the United States. Commerce in oil was known to have existed in Europe as early as the 10th century, but the industry in this country did not get a good start until the drilling of the Drake Well at Titusville, Pa., in 1859. This well was only 69 feet deep, while some modern wells are several miles deep.

In August 1902 drilling for oil had been going on for almost four months in the Kankakee River Valley at Water Valley (Shelby), and the inhabitants in the area were greatly interested in the work. The project had been rushed through, with a force of experts working both day and night, and a report was circulated that oil had been discovered.

On Sat., Aug. 5, 1902, W.A. Saxton, an expert from the Empire and American Glycerine Co. of Bluffton, Ind., arrived with two hundred and fifty quarts of nitro glycerine for the purpose of shooting the well at a depth of one thousand feet below the surface.

Reports that the well would be shot on Sunday or Monday were the cause for many people to visit the site where the prospectors were at work. Everyone was eager for the excitement which usually takes place where oil had been discovered.

But the work of the powerful explosive was delayed to Tuesday at about noon. A large crowd from the neighboring town and several men who had invested in the enterprise were there. The concussion was plainly felt for twenty miles in all directions, and those who were fortunate enough to be within viewing distance saw a sight they have remembered all their lives.

One eyewitness wrote: "The rock, oil, water, and other matter was forced upward through the casing of the well to a height of several hundred feet, and, falling like a fountain, was an unusual sight!"

The oil was plainly visible floating down the Kankakee River, while people were rushing about on the site picking up pieces of rock and other curiosities which were forced out of the well at the time of the explosion.

Those interested in the oil company were well pleased with the showing and reported that the oil tested was of excellent quality. They were sure that the well would be a good paying venture.

After the flow of water and gas had subsided, the work of lifting the casing for examination was done, and then the machinery for the pumping was put into operation. Many wells were drilled in the Kankakee Valley, but none were big enough producers.

In 1914 near Thayer, an oil well was being drilled when the workers discovered a pocket of natural gas, and this for a time was piped into homes in the village.

In 1919-1920 at Grassmere, a little settlement just north of Shelby and a milk stop on the Monon Railroad, an oil well was drilled on the Patchett farm, where John Strickhorn lived for many years. Many dollars were invested in this well and much work was done, but it, too, was not a paying venture.

That well was plugged to keep the gases from escaping, and according to Melvin Strickhorn of Shelby, the son of John, the big pipe can still be seen. He reported that another well was drilled nearby in 1921, but it also was unsuccessful.

In a July 1961 issue on the Lowell Tribune, a story was printed telling of an oil well on the Peter DeFries farm near Thayer. The well was producing 30 to 35 barrels of oil a day, said Jim Hinton, the drilling contractor of Lockport, Ill. Chief Engineer for the project was Harold Phillips.

The land was leased by the Niagara Oil Co. of Evansville, and the oil was being sold for three dollars a barrel. This particular vein was struck at 859 1/2 feet, and at a depth of 662 feet Hinton had cut through a natural gas vein which was sealed off, to be opened later.

Niagara Oil Co. leased land from several farmers at that time, hoping to drill more wells, and Hinton predicted that the oil fields of Thayer would be as lucrative as the oil fields of Texas, easily becoming a vast production area.

This also was not to be.

Last updated on February 7, 2001.

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