L. H. Thornton Recalls How Prospectors Lost Thousands Following Divining Rod.


(Buffalo Times Staff Writer)

            Fortunes were bubbling out of the good, black earth of the Allegheny foothills in the spring of 1883.

            Overnight, towns were born, men were made and men were broken.  Temperamental Earth yielded to some, frowned on more.

            To those who failed in the quest for oil came the “Professor.”  He never had any other name.

            “I got someding goot” he told them in his guttural tones.  “Enuff men and we shall see, we shall see.”

            Today, Lewis H. Thornton, independent oil man, one time newspaper publisher, recalls with a fond laugh for days never to come again, what the “Professor” and his gullible followers saw.

            “The professor had a hazel wood divining rod, as he called it, “remembers Mr. Thornton.

Still Laugh At It

“With it went a can full of stinking chemicals.  There was a great deal of hokus pokus which he said would find them oil, would make them rich.

            “Well, these fellows who hadn’t been able to find their own oil got together a good bit of money, sank it in equipment and followed the professor.

            “He led them a merry chase about the hills, always intently searching the landscape, letting his hazel rod bob up and down, his can of chemicals spoiling the atmosphere.”

            Lew Thornton leans back in his chair, laughs.

            “They sank thousands of dollars in property which the professor said would produce oil.  There was a great deal of money tied up in the land, even more in the equipment for drilling.  Then they started to drill.

            “The crew drilled a dozen wells.  There wasn’t a drop of oil in a single well.  And one spring afternoon a frock-coated, very much frightened professor left Bolivar.

            “There were about 30 men hot after him.

            “You see, one of the properties his divining rod and chemicals had told them was worthless had produced the biggest gusher of the year.”

“Coal Oil” Johnny

            Legendary figures, their being vouched for by men still alive, remain static in character down in the Allegany field.  But their deeds grow to Homeric proportions.

            Thus “Coal Oil Johnny” Britt, “Coal Oil Johny” is the Colossus of oil country myth.

            To him the tellers of stories look with awe.

            Ask John Cochran, latter day oil man, independent producer and symbol of the “business men” in the oil fields, about the legends of “Coal Oil Johnny.”

            “There was a man,” says Mr. Cochran.

            “I remember my father used to tell me about Coal Oil Johnny.  Stories about him went on and on.  Never had to exaggerate either.  His actual deeds were far stranger than fiction.

            “He was the adopted son of some comparatively poor farm people down in Pennsylvania.  The week after he was adopted oil was discovered on their farm.  My father learned the story when Johnny came to the field here back in 1890 – something or other.

            “Well, Johnny’s foster parents had their land just long enough to become enormously rich, when one morning the stove wouldn’t light.  His dad threw oil on the fire.  Both foster parents were burned to death.  Johnny lived and inherited the fortune.

He Learned Fast

            “He was just a young fellow ad didn’t know what to do with the money.  He learned soon enough.

            “A burlesque show came to town.  That was in 1890, I believe.  Johnny liked the way they danced.  So he hired the show, paid for capacity houses in all the places they would have played for the next three days and kept them here to amuse him.

            “Then another time.  He was in Cleveland.  We didn’t hear about it back here for some time.  It seems a clerk at a hotel was fresh with him.  So Johnny called the owner out of bed.

            “How much for the hotel?”

            “It’s not for sale.”

            “Didn’t ask yuh that.  How much?”

            “One hundred thousand dollars.”

            (“The place was worth $5,000, no more.”)

            “Sold,” said Johnny.  He paid out the money from his pocket, right then and there!

            “Now,” he added, turning to the clerk, ‘your fired.  Get out.’

            “His last episode was his greatest.

            “Johnny walked into a bank one fine afternoon, threw a satchel full of gold pieces – about $15,000 worth- over the cashier’s cage and walked out.  No name or anything.

            “Take care of this,” he said.  “It’s too damn heavy for me!”

            “Fifteen years later Coal Oil Johnny’s immense fortune gave out.  He was flat broke.”

            Under the strain of wild, impetuous living, runs the legend, Johnny’s millions in oil faded into the bubbling glass.  He turned to the Philadelphia bank where he had thrown the bag full of gold.  Finally his claim was established, he received the money and lost it almost at once wildcatting for oil.

End of the Trail

            Two years after he went broke they buried “Coal Oil Johnny” Britt in a pauper’s grave.  On his tombstone no name.  On the mound no flowers.

            “And the only thing in all his life about which he ever became really angry,” remembers John Cochran, “was when he returned to the bank for the money he had thrown them.

            “They first refused to give it to him.  Said he had no references, that they didn’t know his name.

            “Hell!” said Johnny.  Didn’t ask no references of you when I threw it in here, did I?”