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The 1950s The Discovery of Michigan's only Giant Oil Field

The early part of the 1950s continued the activity of the 1940s. Geologists and oil exploration firms continued to be successful finding significant but not huge pools of oil and natural gas. Lurking in the background however was a fortune teller and a farmer's wife, who never bothered to consult a geologist but had the luck to drill the well that would open Michigan's largest oil field.

In the spring of 1950 and the state was ready for a new "boom". Harold McClure, Jr. and Aurora Gasoline Company were taking leases and drilling test holes in southwestern Michigan, but nothing exciting was happening in the area, yet. Brazos Oil, was leasing land and testing in Otsego County at depths of 5,918 to 6,530 feet, producing about 42 barrels a day from one well. Brazos had already had located heavy gas flow in the Niagaran Formation while drilling a well in Hamlin Township, Mason County. But nobody was taking the Niagaran any more seriously than McClure and Aurora Gasoline in southwestern Michigan. Much more interest was to be had in Brazos leasing campaigns, one of the largest in state history that gathered drilling rights to more than a million acres of state and private minerals and was carrying on considerable Richfield drilling in the northeast part of the state.

The decade's first find was near Mt. Pleasant. Drilling contractor/explorer/producer C.W. "Cliff" Collin and Mt. Pleasant landman/explorer Frank Rand (whose interest holders in the project included I.W. Hartman and Stuart Merrill) received a permit to drill a wildcat well on May 8, 1950 in the NW NW NW of Section 20-T14N-R4W, Union Township, Isabella County, with a target depth of 3,650 feet. The Rand group controlled about 740 acres of leases in sections 17, 18, 19, and 20 in Union Township. Drilling commenced on May 15, 1950, on the Albar well.

A few weeks later, as word spread of the oil show, hundreds of townspeople lined M-20 west of Mt. Pleasant to watch the Albar well neared total depth. Onlookers' conversation turned to speculation of another oil boom west of the town like the one east of Mt. Pleasant that had sheltered the area from the Great Depression. Sitting on the seat of my granddad's brand new ‘49 Chevy coupe, much of the conversation was over my ten year old head but I knew this was great and exciting stuff.

The July 21 and 28 issues of Michigan Oil & Gas News carried front page stories about the discovery; with the latter boasting the well had already produced 2,500 barrels of oil. The Albar 1 was tested at about four barrels of oil an hour with ease.

A royalty-buying spree broke out almost immediately. Turner Petroleum Corporation and Leonard Oil Company snapped up acreage in the area. Landowners near the well reported leases at $50 an acre and above. Superior Oil Company made plans for an almost immediate west offset well while Cities Service plotted a north offset. The boom was on; soon to die.

All told, the one well Union 20 Field produced 58,263 barrels of oil and 55.05 million cubic feet of natural gas before being abandoned in 1963. On the map, four dry offsets surround the site of Albar 1. Today a communication antenna tower marks the spot where a rig once was the center of speculation.

The 1950s brought St. Clair County back to life as oil and gas country. In 1952 Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company, with Michigan Consolidated Gas, brought in the successful Ringle 1 in Casco Township and named the resulting field "Boyd", after the company's geologist. The Boyd Field would produce over 2.3 million barrels of oil and 21 billion cubic feet of natural gas from 49 wells drilled to the Salina-Niagaran at 2,457 feet. A year later the company opened the Ira Field with two wells drilled to only 2,375 feet. The Ira Field produced more than 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the Salina-Niagaran before 1961 conversion to a natural gas storage field.

More and greater St. Clair County action was to follow as Owosso independent producer/explorer Glen A. Mills drilled a well in Casco Township three miles from the "Boyd" location. Bill Albers had his rig on the holes and brought it in at 75 to 125 barrels a day from the Niagaran. The well became the opener for oil and gas development over the next ten years in St. Clair County.

The Peters Field discovery in 1955 of a Salina-Niagaran field that would see over six million barrels of oil and 25 billion cubic feet of natural gas produced from about 2,386 feet from 1,780 acres in Casco Township. Geologist Gordon Kiddoo named the source of the Salina-Niagaran production in a report to the Michigan Geological Survey. "The bulk of the gas and oil is contained in dolamatized reef material" Kiddoo said, "with a lesser amount in associated A-1 carbonate". The "reef" moniker and the lessons learned in drilling Salina-Niagaran reefs in St, Clair County would be useful in later years in northern Michigan, when pinnacle reef discoveries would bring a tremendous flow of natural gas online.

In 1954 Swan-King, Basin Oil Company and Alma's McClure Oil Company discovered a good Detroit River formation well in Reynolds Township of Montcalm County to launch the Reynolds Field. The field would put 4.6 million barrels of crude oil into the tanks from 53 producing wells drilled to a depth of about 3,550 feet.

Also in 1954 "Top" Taggart, of Big Rapids fame) opened up the Northville Field in Salem Township of Washtenaw County County, close to Detroit, with his LeMaster well, produced from the Trenton zone. The field covered nearly 2,800 acres in a winding narrow trend strung for more than eight miles and touching parts of Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties, producing more than 18 billion feet of natural gas and over a million barrels of oil from the Trenton/Black River, Dundee and Niagaran formations before conversion to a natural gas storage field in 1968.


Finding the Big One: The Albion-Pulaski-Scipio Trend

The story of the discovery well of Michigan's only "giant" oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oilfield legends. One version of the legend says that a fortune teller told young Ferne Housekecht that a "black river of oil" lay beneath her property in Hillsdale County. Inspired by this revelation, Houseknecht enlisted Clifford Perry, a contract driller and sometimes farmer, to secure a drilling permit and drill a hole on her property. Another version of the story says that the Houseknects were taking a cow to be bred and on the way drove past a drilling rig where Perry was working and from their conversation a deal was struck. Whatever the truth the Houseknect's paid Perry to drill the Houseknecht 1 in Section 10 of Scipio Township, Hillsdale County.

The well was begun in May of 1954. It took Perry more than two and a half years to drill the hole, often with months between work. "The well was drilled with no encouragement from the DNR or the petroleum industry." The late Ferne Houseknecht Bradford wrote me, "The finances came from my family and friends." Persistence paid off when on January 7, 1957 at 4:00 p.m., oil was struck at 3,576 feet in the Trenton zone.

The field would come to be known as the "Golden Gulch" and would foster a "boom" on a discovery-hungry petroleum industry to end a fifteen year major discovery drought. The well triggered a drilling frenzy that would result in 734 wells producing more than 150 million barrels of oil and almost a quarter-trillion (225 billion) cubic feet of natural gas from a twenty-nine mile long by as much as a mile and a half wide underground "trench of porosity and permeabily" angling southeast to northwest, spanning parts of Hillsdale, Jackson, Calhoun and nominally into Eaton counties.

Although Ferne Houseknect and her family paid for and benefited from the discovery well some oilfolk shared her suspicions about what lay underground in the area. Harold McClure, Jr. and Detroit industrialist Max Fisher (Aroura Gasoline Company) had taken an enormous block of leases on acreage in the general area and drilled several test wells. Although they failed to make the discovery, McClure and Aurora were the first to offset the discovery well with a successful development well drilled in the 3,500 to 4,100 foot Trenton and Black River dolomite and were well positioned to benefit from the find.

A little to the north, Mt. Pleasant's Tom Mask and K. P. Wood, along with attorney Ray Markel, put together a deal with McClure for a wildcat well near the City of Albion in Calhoun County. The test well, twelve miles northwest of the Perry-Houseknect well, started to make oil from the Trenton in November of 1958, adding the " Albion" portion of the Trend's field name. Up in Pulaski Township Mt. Pleasant's Turner Petroleum put the maraschino cherry on the Albion-Scipio sundae with a strong new well in Pulaski Township, Jackson County ( about midway between the Scipio and Albion wells), putting the Pulaski "pearl" in the Albion-Pulaski-Scipio Field name necklace.

Other 1950s field discoveries

Besides the aforementioned, the 1950 -1959 decade saw other discoveries including, among others:

  • The McBain in Missaukee County, a Dundee field discovered by Walter Leonard and Ervin Major with 24 wells on 1,000 acres producing over three million barrels of oil all-time.
  • Montcalm County's Stanton Field, with 960,000 total barrels of oil produced from 340 acres, discovered in 1951.
  • The Skeels Field of Clare County, developed by Don Rayburn in the early-mid 1950s. This multi-pay zone field would, from 40 wells, produce all-time 1.2 million barrels of oil from the Richfield and the Sour Zone, another 980,000 barrels of oil from the Dundee from the Dundee, Richfield
  • The Taggart's Overisel Field, a 1955 discovery in Allegan County covering 6,000 acres and to produce 14 billion cubic feet of natural gas from 194 before conversion to a natural gas storage field in 1950.
  • Just before Christmas, 1957, the Miller Brothers of Allegan found a field in Riverton Township of Mason County, to recover 242,200 barrels of oil from 19 wells before abandonment in 1971.

1953 - Michigan Desk and Derrick Club Founded

The first Desk and Derrick club was founded in New Orleans, Louisiana in March, 1949 by a group of women, most of whom were employed in the industry, who wanted to learn more about the oil industry and hoped to get acquainted with women doing similar work in other companies. The idea caught on and led to the formation of Desk and Derrick clubs in Jackson MS (June, 1949), Los Angeles CA (April, 1950) and Houston TX (August, 1950). The Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs of North America was formed July 23, 1951 by the presidents of the New Orleans, Jackson, Los Angeles, and Houston clubs and counted 883 members. By June, 1953 the Association had more than 6,000 members representing 1,000 firms and was comprised of over 49 clubs from Canada to the southwestern states and from the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Coast.

The first chapter of the Desk and Derrick Club in Michigan was organized June 23, 1953 by charter members Helen Beauregard (secretary to M.B. Decker), Effie Mae Cook(Evaluation Sales & Service), Marion Dean (Skeets & Sullivan), DoreneDunn (Gordon Drilling Company), Viola Frost (Conservation Department, Geological Survey Division), Leona Hoot (Turner Petroleum Company, Rose Lagoe (Roosevelt Oil & Refining Corp.), Geneva Lea (Dowell, Inc.), Eilene Milloy (Roosevelt Oil & Refining Corp), Lucille Morey (Northern Plains Petroleum Company), Rose Neff(secretary to R. Lee Browning), Thelma "Tommy" Prior(secretary to I.W. Hartman), Thelma Rowe (Dowell Inc.), Lola Scribner(Michigan Oil & Gas News), JaneStienke (Sun Oil Company), Marie Ware (Pure Oil Company) and Annabell Welsh (Gordon Oil Company). In the 1970s the Cascades Desk and Derrick Club was organized in Jackson, Michigan and in the 1980s the Bay Area Desk and Derrick Club (or B.A.D.D. as they nicknamed themselves) came into being in Traverse City.

Today only the Traverse City group remains but the Michigan Desk and Derrick Club involvement remains strong: Jackson, Michigan's Cindy Weaver (Midway Supply), was elected the national Association of Desk and Derrick Club's first President from Michigan at the ADDC's conference in Traverse City in 2004.