First published in The Emporia Gazette January 3, 2006
Jay Price (right) signs a book for a retired oilman at
the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado on December 14, 2005.
THE EL DORADO OIL BOOM
by Cheryl Unruh
At night, the oil rigs were outlined with lights.
To a kid growing up in the Space Age, the 1960s, the lighted derricks looked like rockets preparing to launch from fields near Pawnee Rock.
I had forgotten about those oil rigs and the echoing heartbeat of the pump jacks, but a new book revived my memories.
Recently, I drove to El Dorado to hear my friend Jay Price speak
at the Kansas Oil Museum. He has published his fourth book,
El Dorado: Legacy of an Oil Boom.
Price teaches history at Wichita State University and directs WSU’s
public history program.
Deborah Amend, director of the Kansas Oil Museum, introduced Jay Price to the audience. “He’s very passionate about public history and about history in general.
We are really excited about this new book.”
The book is a pictorial history of Butler County’s oil boom which took place from 1915 through the mid 1920s.
Part of the writing process, Price said, was determining, “What is the story I’m going to tell?” After that, “It was a matter of picking the right photos and telling that story.”
Although oil was struck in March of 1914 on the Frank Varner farm near Augusta, it wasn’t until workers hit oil at the Stapleton No. 1 well on October 7, 1915 that the activity in Butler County accelerated.
Drilling for oil was risky and expensive.
Price wrote, “It took capital to buy the equipment, hire the geologists, build the derricks and storage facilities and pay the drilling crew.”
And many wells were dry.
Oil had already been big business in Oklahoma since 1897 when it was found near Bartlesville. Underground gas and oil pools, known as the Mid-Continent field, stretched through Oklahoma and Kansas.
“By early 1916, it just takes off,” he said. “This is a boom that just explodes overnight.”
The timing of the oil boom in El Dorado coincided with the need for fuel during World War I, and also the increasing popularity of the automobile.
By the time the war was over, the fields between Wichita and El Dorado were among the most productive in the nation.
“In 1918, production peaked at over 45 million barrels. Kansas had become one of the leading oil states of the nation… .” Price wrote.
The book has nearly 200 photos and fact-filled captions which provide a visual and written history. Black-and-white photographs pull the reader into the story, showing workers and entrepreneurs, oil drilling equipment and the houses and communities where the workers lived.
Several towns began and ended with the oil boom. Oil Hill, Midian, Magna City and Oil Valley were created to house workers.
“Many houses were simple ‘shotguns,’ consisting of a single row of rooms," Price wrote. "Plain wood and corrugated metal were the materials of choice. Foundations were often just timbers set on the ground.“Some ‘oil camps’ were not official towns but simply collections of homes near the rigs.”
Kansans John Vickers of Liberal, and Harry Ford Sinclair, who grew up in Independence, created national petroleum and refining companies.
“The folks who had the oil money invested in other things—like aviation.” Price cited oilmen William Skelly and Jake Moellendick. Moellendick has been referred to as “the father of aviation in Wichita.”
“Today the legacy of the Butler County oil boom lives on in the legion of pumps still dotting the landscape, in the planes that fly overhead and in El Dorado’s Kansas Oil Museum.”
His book has been published, but the project continues. Jay Price is working with KPTS, Wichita’s public television station, to produce a documentary of the Butler County oil boom.
El Dorado: Legacy of an Oil Boom is published by Arcadia Publishing.
* * *
Read more about Jay Price :
"History professor's gift to the present: the past"
written by Becky Tanner of the Wichita Eagle -- but, as seen here
in the Topeka Capital Journal (since the Eagle's story has been stored in inaccessible archives.)
Copyright 2006 by Cheryl Unruh