Monday, January 17, 2011

An Oil Well in Lebanon and What Might Have Been

SAN DIEGO – With all of my travels and other pursuits in the past month, I needed a break, and no, golf doesn’t count.

Last year, my father gave me a box of memories my cousin had passed on to him from my aunt. Naomi Martin, my father’s older sister not only kept her memories but also retained my grandmother’s memories in that box. It is a treasure trove I am trying to figure out how to disperse to my family.

I took my needed break and decided to go through the memory box again.

I picked out and carefully cradled a yellowed newspaper clipping in my palm, afraid it would disintegrate – Newsprint paper, like us, becomes fragile when it ages. Although there was no date attached, this fragile clipping was from 90 years ago.

The article was not from the Democrat. It had a Lebanon “special” dateline, a practice used only for out of town articles, and was most likely from a Nashville paper.

The news might have changed Lebanon’s future. It certainly would have changed mine. But a denouement could not be found in the box of memories

The headline would have startled readers today: “Crude Oil Found in Abandoned Well.” The four-paragraph article describes the oil being discovered by children playing in my grandfather’s yard.

The story reported these children had lowered tin cans into the well and pulled out crude oil instead of water and an analysis revealed the stuff was of “exceedingly pure quality.” The article explained experts predicted “should it be found to be in commercial quantities would equal to (sic) any crude oil in America.”

The article ended noting my Grandfather, Culley Jewell, previously had been a well digger and was directing well clean up with intent to lease the well.
“What happened?” I wondered and, as usual, sought Lebanon history information from my parents. While explaining my call, I asked my father if he was one of the “children.”

He laughed his knowing laugh, admitting he was around ten when he and others were dipping tin cans in the backyard well. So the oil discovery occurred around 1924.
The water well had been abandoned a dozen years earlier when city water became available. This struck me as funny considering city water availability today. My grandfather and father’s home was at the east end of West Spring Street, two whole blocks from the square.

Extreme dry weather – without Al Gore and his legions claiming global warming – had warranted reopening the well, but the restoration had not been completed.
My father told me he was playing with friends when they pulled up their cans filled with black liquid instead of water.

“We thought it was gasoline,” my father recounted. “We even put it in our old Ford and it ran on the stuff.”

“I couldn’t find any follow up clippings,” I explained. “Obviously, there was no oil or Lebanon would be replete with oil derricks today, and we would be rich,” I reasoned, “So what happened?”

“Daddy had it analyzed and they eventually decided the oil was just run off from a stream,” my father concluded, laughing again.

As he explained, I thought about how many experts today would be flabbergasted over such a sequence. Automobile makers would descend on Lebanon in droves to learn more about this magic stuff which could make automobiles run from straight out of the earth. Petroleum engineers and geologists would hover over the well and froth over the prospects of oil in Tennessee.

Real estate agents would clamor to buy up all of the property within miles and hook up with oil interests to mass produce and market the black gold. And eventually, an environmental protest against improper dispensation of oil would bring thousands to the square. Somebody would be arrested and have to pay a king’s ransom for a fine.

Politicians would make speeches, and enact 500 laws. All of the news networks would send hundreds of cinematographers, production crews, and pretty announcers to tell the nation nightly of the progress.

But in 1924 or thereabouts, there isn’t even an explanation of what ensued. My father didn’t even get his name in the paper.

I think I would have liked it better back then.

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