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OPINION: Story of local oil history reaching far wider audience

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Patricia McGee

The amazing oil history of Oil Springs and Petrolia has spurred diverse projects this year by a filmmaker, photographer, playwright and historians who live far beyond Lambton County.

The story of Lambton oil and its International Drillers is being discussed in places as far-flung as Poland, the Czech Republic, Ottawa Valley, and Calgary, said Charlie Fairbank, owner of the Fairbank Oil Fields in Oil Springs.

“I have been delighted to meet these enthusiastic talented individuals, explain the technology and history, and point them to more resources. We’re eager to see their finished products.”

This month, the Calgary-based Canadian Energy Centre photographed the authentic 1860s technology used by Fairbanks and the Petrolia Discovery site.

The Centre is an independent Alberta corporation supported primarily by the province’s Technology Innovation and Emission fund. Photographer David Chidley, a former Lambton College instructor now living in Alberta, said his photo story tells the history of Enniskillen Township, which is still largely unknown to the rest of Canada.

In October, Canadian playwright Ewan McLaren gathered information at the Fairbank Oil Fields and Lambton County Archives for a novel he’s writing about Lambton’s famous International Drillers.

More than 500 drillers took their local expertise, tools, and knowledge to open oil fields in 86 countries between 1873 and 1945. This was early in the world’s pursuit of oil and before it was developed in the Middle East, Texas or Alberta.

The drillers recorded their experiences in exotic places on far-flung shores and their harrowing tales are a treasure trove for novelists. McLaren has lived in Prague the past 30 years and intends to return to Lambton next summer to do further research.

A conference was held in Bobkra, Poland in September for oil museums around the world, with the idea of submitting a serial application to UNESCO World Heritage. Gary May, the author of Hard Oiler, gave a 15-minute virtual presentation on William McGarvey, the Petrolia oilman who took his team of experts to Galicia in the 1870s (now Ukraine and Poland) and revolutionized the industry there. Crude Genius, his new in-depth book on McGarvey, will be published in April.

The Polish conference included a presentation by James Douet of The International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). His thematic study of the Heritage of Petroleum, which includes a case study on Oil Springs, is central to the international TICCIH conference slated for Oil Springs and Sarnia next summer.

And in August, documentary filmmakers from the Ottawa Valley interviewed Charlie Fairbank. Tyson Burger and his cameraman sought out the oil families of Oil Springs still producing oil. The five families – Fairbank, Morningstar, Barnes, Mitchell and Kersey – all date back several generations. Burger returned to interview Erin Dee Richards this month.

Patricia McGee is the author of The Story of Fairbank Oil


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