Oil in them there hills

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Many of my ancestors had entrepreneurial souls. The most recent of who were photographers and shop owners. Like so many people of the time, there was a group of oil producers too. Men were getting rich in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania. Photographs of the hills of Bradford show them stripped of all trees and dotted with a manmade version of vegetation, the pumping jack. The jacks were practically stacked on top of each other, milking the last drop of oil from the depths of the earth. Later it was learned that placing that many wells, that close together, didn’t aid in retrieval, but reduced the amount of oil that was to be gathered.


My great-great-grandfather William C Davis, 34 years old in 1881, would be yet another adventurer set out to Bradford, Pennsylvania from Mercer, Pennsylvania, to make his fortune in the oil field. Oil production would peak that year at 23 million barrels produced from 11,200 wells. The production of oil in the area had started in 1864 and would fall off drastically and producers would be flooding wells with water to stimulate production by 1890.


I knew that William was a butcher; he had owned his own butcher shop at one point in time and moved it up and down the street three times. I have a photograph of his horse and buggy delivery wagon and a group of men outside of the establishment. Finding him in the Bradford directory in 1881 as a oil producer was a big surprise. By 1884 he listed himself as a butcher. The directory for 1882-1883 doesn’t list an occupation for William, which is a bit curious. Married in 1874, William had 3 children to support and had to have been working at something.


I would have another great-great-grandfather try his hand at oil producing in 1896. He would give up a prosperous occupation, end up separated from his family, in debt and dead within 10 years, searching for that elusive big strike, his wife’s family also having been down the path from riches to subsistence with the oil fields of Pennsylvania.


Some of the original wealthy oil producer’s families still live in Bradford, they were then the controlling powers and in some cases still are over what has happened to the little town in the hills that went oil crazy. The list of oil producers in the late 1800’s is a long one with very few ever making more than a bare bones living on black gold. To see the town now, one would never have guessed that it bustled and hummed with the clanging of pumps and rowdy behavior of oil adventurers. Very little is left of the opulent theaters that held some of the day’s biggest talents. Like so many little towns around the country, the true wealth of the area, it’s youth, are leaving to strike their riches in fields that haven’t been drained and mismanaged.


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