By Constance Taylor Williams

As I sit here under the canopy of the RV parked atop

Richburg Hill, lean back in my canvas chair and look out over the

valley, I feel very insignificant. It's as if I am one with the trees

and the hills surrounding me. It's wonderfully quiet and peaceful

here on my now-private summit, and so very beautiful. One can

see for miles in three directions. The only activity -aside from

the butterflies bouncing from buttercup to buttercup across the

meadow and the deer flies buzzing over my head -is a tractor

off in a distant valley, silently pulling a hay wagon. Horses in a

field far to the south appear unmoving because of their distance.

I close my eyes and try to recall what it looked like fifty years

ago, when I was a child growing up in that distant valley where

horses now graze.

It seems so long ago that we lived in Allentown and yet, not long ago at all... ...

As a little girl I was fascinated by the constant activity on the

hillsides near where I now sit in near-silent solitude. There were

always people -men, mostly. The hills for miles around were

peppered with powerhouses from which rod lines protruded in

several directions. They bounced up and down as they tugged

at the pumping jacks which brought the "Pennsylvania crude"

nearer the surface so it could flow through pipes to collection


I always sort of  resented the term "Pennsylvania crude." We

were New Yorkers! Pennsylvania was all the way the other side

of Alma, where my Dad and both of his parents were born and

various aunts, uncles and cousins by the dozens still lived.

Great Grandpa Julius Caesar Quick's big Victorian house with its

wrap-around porches and beautiful, ornate chestnut woodwork

was built at  the very top of Alma Hill and I'm told it was the

site of many a "shindig" on the Fourth of July for at least two

generations... ...people came from miles around to play “town

team” baseball and sample the homemade ice cream which

Grandma Agnes made using packing ice from the bear cave in

the woods. The children were allowed to take turns cranking the

ice cream machine by hand [and considered it a privilege]

The oil from the leases which my father worked was stored

in the tanks until "tankers" (trucks) came to pick it up and

transport it to the refinery seven or so miles away in Wellsville.

At the foot of Norton Summit -on what is still called Yaeger

Road for a family long gone -was a tank farm, from which oil

from other leases was collected and pumped through pipelines

directly to the refinery.

The pressure plant, where Grandpa Taylor spent part of

each day -except Sunday when he strictly kept the Sabbath -

polishing equipment until it shone, contained powerful machines

which were seldom idle. The "BOOM, boom, boom, boom,

BOOM, boom, boom, boom" which the engines emitted,

continued day and night. My grandparents lived next door to the

pressure plant on Phillips Hill and my brother and I loved to stay

overnight at their house. We'd sleep on the pulled-out studio

couch in the parlor, under Grandma's homemade scrap quilts,

and be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic booming from the

pressure plant.

Three generations of men in my father's family were

drillers and pumpers, although Dad was a "roust-about" and a

"tool dresser" as a young adult. Each day the pumpers would

start the noisy gas engines in the powerhouses, walk the miles

of rod line trails and periodically make their way to a collection

tank, where they would climb to the top, open the hatch and

measure the depth of the thick black liquid within. One had to

take a deep breath of fresh air before opening the hatch as it

was easy to be overcome by fumes. Occasionally the gas or oil

would catch fire and the volunteer firemen would have to come

and put it out. (Most of the men in town were volunteer firemen. )

Once I asked my grandmother why Grandpa's feet were so

peculiar... ..he wore specially-made black shoes and his toes

"weren't right." She told me that nobody talked about it

anymore, but that Grandpa  had to jump from the top of a big

tank one day, as the oil and gas under him had caught fire. I

thought that sounded exciting! Little did I realize at the time

how Grandpa must have suffered that day and for many days

thereafter as he did his work.

It seems to me that Grandpa always carried

something over his shoulder as he climbed the hill to the

powerhouse -sometimes a huge pipe wrench, but more often a

scythe. The scythe served more than one purpose. It was used

mostly to keep the grass and weeds trimmed under the rod lines

and around the powerhouses; it also served as a weapon if one

of the "spotted adders," which often sunned themselves around

the engines' exhaust pipes, decided to be aggressive. {Those

spotted adders were bad news! Sometimes the boys would

climb up the hill behind the Allentown School during lunch

recess, catch one, and chase the screaming girls with it until a

teacher or Nate {Swarthout) or Lyle {Ellsworth), our school

"janitors" (they were more than that!) came to the rescue. ...(but that's another story!)

Between our house on Allen Street and our neighbors' was a

pumping jack, which squeakily pumped oil from morning until

night. There were jacks everywhere in our town. There was

even one in the middle of the school's baseball diamond,

surrounded by a picket fence. There were special rules which

applied if anyone had the good fortune ( or misfortune, if on the

defending team) of hitting the ball inside the fence. The batter

was only allowed to go as far as second base, while one of the

poor unfortunates in the field climbed the fence and retrieved

the oily ball.

Drilling rigs -sometimes referred to as "standards" or

"derricks" -dotted the hillside between the powerhouses. A rig

was typically 24 feet across at it’s base, tapering considerably at

the top, and 72 feet high. (I checked this out with my Dad!)

Drilling was dangerous and hard work, especially so in the

winter. I've heard Dad tell about the daily climb up one of the

steep slopes near our house through chest-deep snow, to the

rig where he would begin the midnight 'til eight shift. He would

dry out his frozen clothing in the warmth of the rig as he

worked.  In those days he was a "tool-dresser" -low man in the

chain of command. One of his jobs was to keep the bits

hammered out so that a sharp one was always ready. Shouting

above the clang on the metal and the noise of the engine, the

driller would, from time to time  demand a change of bits,

whereupon the string of pipe would be raised from the drilling

hole, the bit changed, and the operation continued. Occasionally

the cables would break or some other calamity would arise which

would necessitate having one of the men climb the 72 feet to

the top of the rig to make the necessary repairs. During freezing

western New York winters, this was an extremely dangerous

task, but Dad apparently never had a major catastrophy -at

least not any that he told us about!  He said each man was

allowed only one such catastrophy, and he didn't want to use up

his allotment.

I recall once when curiosity overcame my fear of punishment

and I bravely ventured inside a rig when Dad was drilling. It was

incredibly dirty and noisy, as the metal bit was pounded deeper

and deeper into the ground in search of the oil. From time to

time as the hole filled with water, the "tools" would be pulled up

and out, swung aside, and a bailer attached. The bailer would

then be lowered down into the hole, allowed to fill with "sand

pumpings," again raised to the surface, swung outside and

dumped on the ground. The sand pumpings were a smelly

mixture of oil, clay, sand and water and usually were a grayish

color. As children we loved to play in the sand pumpings on the

hill behind Clevelands' house if we could do so undetected. We

made mud pies and even pottery-like baskets and bowls, which

we'd hide somewhere so they'd bake in the sun. I recently

talked about my early potter's experience with a petroleum

engineer acquaintance who worked for the New York State

Department of Environmental Conservation. He exclaimed, in a

horrified voice, "My gosh! Imagine the PCB exposure you all

must have had!" Then I told him about my great grandfather,

who worked all of his life in the oil fields and only retired from

pumping at age 92 because his eyesight was starting to get a

little fuzzy and he was finding it somewhat difficult to accurately

read the pressure gauges. Perhaps Great Grandpa John would

have lived longer had he not been exposed to all of those


There were other dangerous occupations in the oil

fields, such as that of the "shooters," whose job it was to bring in

the nitroglycerin. When a good well was drilled, a hole would be

"shot" by lowering the nitro down into the hole and setting it off.

The resulting explosion (which ideally wouldn't occur until the

exactly planned moment) would create a pocket at the base of

the hole, which would allow for much easier extraction.

Needless to say, all shootings didn't go as planned, and lives

were frequently snuffed out in accidents involving nitroglycerine.

Before oil was discovered in the area in the late 1800's,

logging and farming were the main sources of livelihood in

Allegany County and its environs. Petroleum production here

reached its peak between 1920 and 1940, when it was

determined that water could be pumped into the wells, forcing

the natural gas to exert pressure which would force the oil into

underground "pools," from which it could more easily be

pumped. This new "water flooding" practice resulted in a

gigantic boom in oil production. One lease in the area produced

over 1,000 barrels a day. It is said that wells were located

almost every 300 feet (alternating lines of water wells and oil

wells) over an area which extended for approximately ten miles

in each direction.

Our town in the valley was referred to as a “boom town” as I

was growing up. As a child I thought the term was a reference

to the sounds made by the powerhouses and pressure plants.

There were several general stores in town, one owned by my

maternal grandparents) a multitude of houses which varied in

size and elegance, pipeline supply stores, saloons, and even an

opera house. The small wooden schoolhouse rapidly filled to

capacity and was replaced during the 1930s with a good sized

two-story brick edifice with a large, well-equipped

gymnasium/auditorium and a library. It was financed entirely by

the villagers' oil money on a pay-as-you-go basis -no

government funding! It remains today, with its big, old cast iron

school bell still intact. Sadly, however, it is no longer used as a

school, the last graduating class being in 1959. Today the

children ride the school bus to Scio, a few miles away, where

they sit in much larger classes and are taught by teachers who

probably don't know a whole lot about drilling except what

they've heard from their grandparents, or perhaps what they've


Once each June those who graduated from, or attended, the

brick school have a potluck supper in the basement of the Allentown

United Methodist Church. They look at pictures and talk about the days

when the creek was so full of oil that no self-respecting fish

would be caught dead in it and when Allentown had a reputation

for being a "real stinker."(Crude oil is rather odiferous!) Mostly,

though, they reminisce about the days of the deer and the

derricks. They talk, gratefully, about the days -not so long ago -

when nearly everyone in town knew your name, your parents,

what instrument you played in the school band which trekked up

the hill to the cemetery every Memorial Day, and probably the

month of your birthday. One couldn't misbehave too badly at

school or on the way home because chances were great that

Mom would already have had a report by the time you got there!

I lean back in the chair and pick up the binoculars. In the

distance I can make out two children, running toward a pond

behind a red barn. One is dragging what appears to be a

shovel, the other a homemade net. They're probably hoping to

catch some pollywogs in the pond.

Maybe they'll even shape some bowls out of the muddy clay soil.



Some things never change!




Copyright ©2003 Constance Taylor Williams


(Constance Taylor Williams was born & raised in Allentown,NY.  She has served actively in many Organizations and currently holds the office of Chaplain, NYS D.A.R. -- What's more, I am proud she's my sister and I wish she would write more articles like this one. 2005/rt/Webmaster)