Oil derrick

View of oil derrick, boiler and steam engine.

Content Tools

523 S. Roberts Street, Lima, Ohio 45804.

July 3,4, 5,1976 saw an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people take a look into yesteryear. It was both a very fine display of antique steam and gas engines and a tribute to an era of wooden rigs and ironmen. This all took place at the Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio.

It all started back in December 1975 when the Allen County Historical Society, along with the Allen County Bicentennial Commission, hit upon the idea of an oil well, complete with wooden derrick for a bicentennial project.

A distinguished, white-haired gentleman, seventy-seven years young, having spent more than sixty of them in the oil business, Mr. Jim MacDonell, president of the Historical Society, started the wheels turning, and as he stated, 'then the fun began.'

First, a lease on ten acres in the Northeast corner of the Fairgrounds was obtained from the County Commissioners and a permit to drill was issued by the State of Ohio. The wooden rig required nearly twenty thousand feet of lumber. The main sill is 16' x 16' x 28'. The walking beam is 14' x 24' x 24'. The timbers required were sawed from red and white oak, cut in the woods on Jim MacDonell's farm west of Lima, Ohio. The logs, one which measured five feet at the base were trucked to the Bill Lanwehr Sawmill at Ottawa, Ohio where the required lumber was sawed.

The steam engine presented a problem that started a search from Pennsylvania to Texas. Jim was not looking for just a steam engine. Being a perfectionist that he is, he wanted an oil-well drilling steam engine.

It was because of the steam engine that I first found out about the oil well project. A phone call one evening from Mr. MacDonell, whom I had never met, and because of my association with the Northwest Antique Machinery Association at Bluffton, Ohio, Jim asked if I had any knowledge as to where an oil well drilling engine might be found. I was sorry but I could not help him, but stated that I would ask around.

Two days later after a phone call to Bob Flick, president of the Bluffton Association, Jim had his steam engine. It so happened that Bob had an old Ajax steam engine, 10' x 12' sold by the Oil Well Supply Co., Pittsburgh, Pa., out in his barn. Bob had cheated some junk dealer out of his glory of cutting up this fine 'ole girl', by taking her home with him. She had completed her last job some years back on an oil well outside of Findlay, Ohio. It had been abandoned and left to the elements.

The engine was a so-called basket case. The cylinder had to be rebored, a new piston cast and machined, a new piston and valve rod had to be made. The crank shaft bearings had to be cleaned and reshimmed. Every bolt and nut was rusted tight. The elements had done a good job on the ole girl. The job of rebuilding this ole Ajax took place in the garage back of the Allen County Museum, by Willis Lehmann, Duane Clegg, John Baldwin and myself.

The first week of June 1976, the new ole Ajax was moved from the garage to the fairgrounds and set in position. The boiler had been set in position around the last of May. We connected up the steam line, fired up the boiler and when the steam gauge told us that we had 50 lbs. we slowly opened the throttle valve. Steam started to issue from the open cylinder cocks, then the flywheel starter to turn an old engine that had once died, had come back to life.

The cable tools, pipe and many other items for the well came from Mr. Red Fenner, Robinson, Illinois. The essential items such as the band wheel, bull wheels, sand reel and crown block were donated by the Waverly Oil Co., Newark, Ohio. All of these parts along with bits, stems and balers are relics dating to the 1800s.

The steam boiler (oil field type) took us as far as Madison, Wisconsin to Robinson, Illinois and back to Newark, Ohio where our oil field type boiler was located. It was all that remained when a nitroglycerine plant blew up some years ago. It was purchased, hauled out of the woods and transported back to Lima. A new front flue sheet and new flues had to be put in by Red Hollinger of the Buckeye Boiler and Welding Shop of Lima, Ohio. A hydrostatic test of 175 lbs. was applied and the safety valve set at 125 lb. The boiler was ready for service.

The rig was completed to a height of 66'. The boiler and engine set all cables in place. The 10' bit was attached to the stem - everything was GO July 2, 1976 cable tool driller, John Baldwin, turned the wheel on his telegraph line (the line that runs from the drilling floor to the throttle valve on the steam engine)  the engine started to turn, the bit raises and drops the well is started  just the way it was done back in the 1800s!

Drilling was resumed at 8 A.M. Saturday, July 3rd but was stopped at around noon because of the man spectators wanting to view the operation right from the drilling floor. To insure the safety of all the people, no drilling was done the remainder of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The boiler was steamed up all three days and the engine allowed to run at a very low RPM. The public was allowed to inspect the entire operation first hand from the drilling floor.

A 10 inch hole was punched down 37 feet and then a like about 8' casing put down. The drilling continued to a depth of 446 feet with 7' casing put down. From 446 feet to 1,317 feet to where oil was struck November 12, 1976, it is what oil men call an open hole (no casing). NO! It is not a gusher, nor are all concerned going to become millionaires over night.

As Jim MacDonell stated from the very first, 'Most of the areas wells played out years ago.' (Oil was first discovered in this area in 1885, after which Lima became the largest oil field in the world. Hundreds of wells were drilled. Lima remained the center of the petroleum industry with the turn of the century when the wells started to play out). Jim, went on to say, 'We probably won't get any great amount of oil, but I expect we'll get enough to grease the tools. We'll do what we set out to do, and that's preserve a piece of history and show people for years to come the kind of equipment and skills that started it all.'

I am sorry to say that at this time a very small amount of oil is being produced from this well.

A hearty thanks and a job well done goes to the following Iron-Men, who made it possible to turn back the hours of time and give us all a look into the past. James A. MacDonell, who made it all happen; John Baldwin, chief driller; Fred Owens, fireman who fed the hungry boiler and Walter Vossler, driller. Just to add a note, all of the above men mentioned are in their seventies.

The wood drilling rig, the oil field boiler, the Ajax steam engine and all the cable tools will remain and will be a permanent historical exhibit to commemorate for all time, an era of the Nation's past.

As I started out 'The show with an Oil Well' well, we had a show! Last April a few letters were sent out to engine buffs inviting them to come to Lima July 3, 4,5 with some of their engines and help us get this well started. As it turned out, over sixty enginemen and their families showed up. Each brought along a great number of beautiful restored gas and steam engines. They came from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and our own state of Ohio.

The oil well almost had to take second place in this show because of our man and his wonderful wife, Mr. & Mrs. Vern Tilton, Lima, Ohio. Vern transported his two beautiful traction engines to the Fairgrounds. One was a big engine and the other was even bigger. The big engine is a 16-55 HP Heck Gonnerman. The bigger is a 140 HP Colean engine. The Colean tips the scales at 22 tons a lot of iron horse. Both engines were in operation all three days and all day long each day. I think that every young boy and girl in this area had a chance to ride on a steam engine and at times some of the boys and even the girls were at least sixty years of age. Just to show you how much these engines were run, we started out the show with a little short of having four tons of coal. There were three other steam engnes in the show: Russell Sams scale model, Charlie Maxson and his model steamer, and our stationary steam-electric rig. None of the above boilers required much fuel. The coal was all gone by Monday morning July 5th. In fact, Vern Tilton had to bring some coal from his farm in order to run in the parade in down town Lima on Monday.

Our many thanks go out to Mr. and Mrs. Vern Tilton and his two engineers that operated the engines. Russell Sams, also put on a good show with his half scale Geiser engine and Baker fan. Charlie Maxson, as usual had trouble getting up steam each morning. He said the trouble was caused by the location that we put him in we had put Charlie under a big shade tree. He said this caused a bad down draft in his smoke stack Now Charlie! Ronald Gebby also put on a good show with his 10-20 McDeering.

We lost count of the gas engines that were on display all three days. The last count taken showed that there were over 175 all the way from a HP Ideal to a 25 HP Reed oil well engine.

Ike Eyler had his half scale oil well pump jack set up and operating, powered by a rod from one of his gas engines. Ike's pump looked so realistic pumping water in which Ike had put some black dye in, out of a pump and back into it, around and around. A lady that resides just a short distance from the Fairgrounds said that in all the years that she had lived there, she did not know that there was an oil well there that could pump the oil from it.

It is impossible to name each and every exhibitor, but our thanks go out to each and every one. Without you, we could not have had a show. My thanks go out also to my wife, Cleo (Babe) Clegg, who worked very hard all three days getting each and every exhibitor to sign the register and made sure each one received a plaque. The plaques were furnished by Jim MacDonell.

A big thanks to Willis Lehmann and my son, Duane, who made sure that the steamers had plenty of fuel and water and the gas engines and tractors had plenty of gasoline.

In all, a wonderful time was had by everyone. The weather was better than anyone could ask for and the people in the Lima area are still talking about the terrific Bicentennial Celebration that was held at the Fairgrounds.

The engine show is over. The well is completed, but the wooden drilling rig stands. If at any time you are on I-75 and want to take a look into the past, take U.S. 309 East off of I-75, go East about one half mile to the Allen County Fairgrounds where you will find this mighty oak giant of the past.