The Ohio Oil Boom: 1885-95

A display at the Wood County Historical Center & Museum in Bowling Green, Ohio tells stories of late nineteenth century oil wells.

| December 2007

The Ohio oil boom of the late 1800s is more than a historical footnote in an encyclopedia listing. Portrayed through an actual oil-drilling rig, the subject is a fascinating museum display at the Wood County Historical Center & Museum, Bowling Green, Ohio. It tells multiple stories: The great need for fuel for increasing mechanization on the farm and in industry, the rapidly expanding use of steam and gas engines, and the mobility of a workforce in boom times.

"Thousands of oil wells were drilled in Wood County and surrounding counties during the 1885-1895 Ohio oil boom," says Steve Cox, a Wood County Historical Center volunteer who maintains the oil drilling/powerhouse equipment. "In 1896, 6,456 wells were completed and Ohio led the nation in oil production."

The museum's oil-drilling rig came to life as part of a Bicentennial exhibit assembled by the Lima (Ohio) Historical Society in 1976. On July 4, 1976, volunteers actually pumped oil out of the well they had drilled.

In 1997, the Wood County museum acquired the display and relocated it to its grounds. Reconstruction started in 1999. Using a National Oil Supply Co. catalog from the late 1880s as a guide (the catalog contains dimensions, material, set-up and working actions for every phase of oil drilling/pumping operations), museum staffers restored the oil drilling rig and powerhouse. Everything in the display is salvaged from the local area, with the exception of a derrick from West Virginia.

The display is an accurate representation of an oil-drilling operation more than 100 years ago. "This is the general way the oil rig would have been constructed at each and every oil well," Steve says. "Once they hit gas, oil or nothing, they would disassemble it and move about 500 feet to a new location, where they would reassemble the equipment and start drilling again." Moves like that were made more than 38,000 times during the Ohio oil boom. Researchers believe a crew of 20 to 30 men was kept busy with assembly and disassembly, moving oil rigs from site to site.

Workers were not hard to find. "A small town within 4 miles of here had a population of about 20 people at the start of the boom," Steve says. "Four months later, the town register showed population of more than 6,000 people." Those who followed the boom all over northwest Ohio were called "boomers."