Discovery of Oil in Crawford County

Typed by Rita Millis from a history originally done about 1955 - 14 August 2000

In the book entitled THE GREAT WILDCATTER, which is a story of Mike Benedum, written by Sam Mallison, the real beginning of the Crawford County oil boom began when Mike Benedum and Joe Trees encountered a man in Casey, Illinois, who claimed to be a geologist, but most oil men regarded him as a crank. He wore a Prince Albert coat, a white shirt with a stiff collar, a black tie and a high silk hat. In the hotel lobby one night Joe Trees had a conversation with this dignified stranger, and his conversation clearly showed he was a man who was educated and intelligent. When he asked them what they were doing, Mr. Trees told him they were looking for oil, and discussed with the stranger their idea that the oil trend ran Northwest to Southeast, instead of Northeast to Southwest. With this idea, the stranger readily agreed and he told them that about 70 miles southeast from Casey was a little village of Palestine where some small wells had been found, and west of Palestine was Robinson, Illinois. He told them that at Robinson a lawyer, banker and Circuit Judge was convinced there was oil in Crawford County, and this individual, who was named William C. Jones had drilled a well some years ago which had a show of oil, but was not a commercial well. The geologist explained he had seen the well drilled by Judge Jones, and had compared samples from it with samples from the Palestine wells, and had found out they were from the same formation. He further explained that Judge Jones had led movements to organize local drilling companies and had tried to interest various oil companies, as he was convinced that a rich oil field could be found in Crawford County and that the geological structure would show they have the characteristics found in all oil bearing localities. The geologist left them, and they never saw him again, and they did not recall his name, but the more they thought about it, the more they became interested, and they rented a team and buggy and drove through the country around Robinson and Palestine.

On the morning of the second day after they had arrived in Crawford County, they went to the office of Judge Jones and he told them that he had led a group of men who formed the Crawford County Oil, Gas and Coal Company with a capital of $5,000.00, and that they had drilled two wells, both of which produced oil and gas, but not in paying quantities. These two wells were drilled in 1901, and the men in Robinson and Palestine had invested about $23,000.00 in drilling, and despite the lack of any real success, Judge Jones explained that he was convinced oil and gas existed in this County in large quantities, and that the past failures were due to inexperience in making proper locations and drilling, and lacking adequate financing, but with so much evidence of oil and gas, certainly rich deposits of both existed in Crawford County. At the time Mike Benedum and Joe Trees were in the office with Judge Jones, the author of this book remembers those visits as at that time, the author was secretary to Judge Jones and was employed in his office and had personal contact with both Mr. Benedum and Mr. Trees.

Mike and Joe were greatly encouraged, and they investigated the wells near Robinson and Palestine and found that the samples of oil sand matched the sand from the oil wells near Casey. They decided to invest the proceeds they had accumulated in former projects, with any additional funds they could collect, as they were convinced, from the investigation they had made, that the structures were highly promising, and there was great opportunity to obtain production of oil or gas, or both in this County. Mike Benedum went back East to raise money, and Joe Trees remained in Robinson, making trips to various parts of the County, where his engineering knowledge and drilling experience indicated the most favorable opportunity of obtaining production. In Pittsburgh, Mr. Benedum arranged with some drilling contractors and some other friends to share in the venture, and after these arrangements were made, Mr. Benedum came back to Crawford County. It was not difficult to obtain oil and gas leases, and in about a month, 50,000 acres of land had been leased. The first well was drilled about 10 miles northwest of Robinson, and was located in a ravine, said Mr. Benedum in telling about it, and in that well they got salt water. From their experience, they knew that there were three things which were inseparable in oil fields, and that was salt water, oil and gas, and the discovery of salt water convinced them that the formation in that locality was porous enough to produce oil, if they could get above the salt water level. As the well had been drilled in a ravine, Mr. Benedum and Mr. Trees walked back up the ravine to the start of it, and they noticed that the further they walked, the formations were getting higher, and when they thought they were above the salt water, they made a location on the farm of Robert Athey. Drilling began in July 1905, but it caused no excitement, as no successful wells had been drilled in the County, and very few shared in the optimism of Judge Jones about the future of oil or gas in this County; in fact, the Robinson Argus reported the "Spudding In" of the well with only a few lines on an inside page of their paper. Drilling went on until about 4:00 o'clock on one Saturday afternoon, August 5, and at a depth of 930 feet the drill bit struck the oil sand and the drilling tools were pulled out of the well, followed by a column of oil that shot into the air 30 or 40 feet. In describing, Mr. Benedum said, "It was the prettiest sight I have ever seen in my life:. That well produced about a million and a half feet of gas and 25 barrels of oil per day, and it was the opening of Illinois as an oil producing state. In the Robinson Argus of August 6, 1905, the discovery was announced in big headlines, and people from all over the County drove out to see the well.

News of the oil strike traveled like wildfire to other oil producing communities, with the result that every incoming train brought prospectors, speculators, contractors, oil field workers, gamblers, and various other riff-raff, mingling with teamsters, drillers and engineers. Within a week the housing accommodations in the community were exhausted, and frames of new buildings began to rise to the drone of saws and the tattoo of hammers. Tents were pitched on the vacant lots, and in the Court house yard, many times, those who could not find accommodations elsewhere slept in the open all night. Among the prospectors and oil men who came to this County was W. W. Siebert of Pittsburgh, and William Skelly, who later made a big strike in Oklahoma. The firm of Anchor and Siebert leased up many acres of land in the west and southwest part of Crawford County, and some of these leases changed hands many times before drilling was actually done on them. One particular 40 acre lease, which is still producing oil, was traded to a boot-legger for a pint of whiskey, and the bootlegger sold it for $10.00. It was resold several times, and was finally acquired by H. E. Whittaker, a business man in Robinson at that time. Mr. Whittaker interested some others in drilling on the lease, and their first well was a good one, and that particular 40 acre lease has produced many thousands of barrels of oil.

In those days, drilling was all done by cable tools. Compared to the present method of rotary drilling, it was necessary to hitch as many as eight teams of horses to the boilers used in drilling the wells in order to get the boilers on locations as the mud, at times, was axle deep. There were no good roads such as we have today, and transporting the drilling equipment was a major problem indeed, but with the ingenuity and tenacity for which oil men are noted, these difficulties were overcome. The derricks were built of wood, and the cable tools transported by teams of horses. In those days, drilling rigs were built entirely of wood, and the rig building contractors and their crews could, and did, when all material was on the ground, erect a derrick complete from the mud sills to the crown block in one day.

Many of the oil men who had operated in the oil fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana came to Illinois and settled with their families in this part of the state; many of them making fortunes here, and many of them losing fortunes which they had accumulated elsewhere. Many of these men went on to other oil fields, such as Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, and many who left here with fortunes lost them in the oil fields there. Many who had lost fortunes here recovered them in other fields. For the prosperity that has come to Crawford County as the result of the discovery of oil and gas, in the opinion of this author, much of the credit belongs to the faith and the optimism of Judge William C. Jones for his untiring efforts and his influence in getting Mike Benedum and Joe Trees interested in making the effort to discover oil and gas in this County.


This page last updated on February 05, 2015.