AN OIL BOOM TOWN AT THE CROSSROADS
By John P. Herrick
Allentown, a natural site for the third boom oil town in Allegany County was located in the northwest corner of Alma township, on a main highway, seven miles northeast of Bolivar and seven miles southwest of Wellsville, at the junction of cross roads leading to Petrolia, Pikeville and Richburg.
A mile northeast, at the foot of Norton Summit, a fork of the road turned north and ran down the valley to Scio, a lumber town on the Genesee River and busy shipping point on the Erie Railroad. Two and a half miles to the east stood Triangle Well No. 1, and three miles west, close by the cross road, rose the derrick of the Richburg discovery well. To the north, south, east and west, lay productive oil and gas lands. The townsite, l849 feet above sea level, was owned by Riley Allen and the town was named for him..
Before oil was struck, the settlement, consisting of the Allen Tavern, a country store, a church, and a dozen houses, was known as the “Head of the Plank,” the terminus of a plank road that ran down the Knight’s Creek valley to the Genesee River. The name of the post office was changed to Allentown late in 1881, following the completion of a narrow-gauge railroad that marked the start of the oil boom. The population at the peak of the oil excitement was estimated. at 1600.
A directory of Allentown, printed early in 1882, listed three oil well supply dealers, sixteen stores, four hotels, three saloons, three restaurants, five boarding houses, four billiard halls, three dressmaking and three barber shops, two nitro glycerin dealers, two blacksmith, two wagon and two tank shops, two livery stables with saddle horses for hire, a. bakery, steam laundry, a shooting gallery, two gas companies, The Empire Gas Company and. Allentown Gas Company, a coal and junk dealer, and express and telegraph offices. The professional list included two attorneys, a physician, a veterinarian, a civil engineer and surveyor. The Oil Well Supply Company, Ltd., opened the first supply store, followed by Jarecki Manufacturing Company, Ltd., and the Sheffield Hardware Company. A new school house and opera house were built some months after the directory was printed.
The boom did not get into full swing until the spring of 1883, when promising surrounding oil territory brought $150 an acre. That year, a man driving from Sawyer’s Station, on the Bolivar road, to the Henry Holtom farm on the Knight”s Creek road counted 100 rigs building. The Leader stated that a Bolivar dealer sold 90 new drilling cables in one week in April, mainly for delivery to contractors at Allentown. New business places were opened, and many new homes were built that spring. The United Pipe Line established an oil buying office at Allentown in August. As good wells came in west and south of the town, it was believed that the oil field would extend northeast to Wellsville, but the oil sand petered out near the foot of Norton Summit. Before the end of the year, derricks dotted the landscape from Allentown to Bolivar, along the Phillips Hill road to Richburg, along the back road from Allentown to Petrolia and from Allentown over the Hill to Pikeville. As a trading center, Allen town was “lively” so long as drilling continued active and the floating population remained.
The town was young, a bit wild and the people fun loving. This feeling found expression on July 4, 1884, in a patriotic celebration with Hon. Hamilton Ward as orator. Grand Army Posts, visiting fire companies, civic societies, and brass bands paraded the streets, and flags fluttered along the line of march. There were foot races, sack races, egg races, potato races, a high-bicycle race, a greased pole to climb, a greased pig to catch, a big display of fireworks in the evening, follow by dancing for prizes. The torpedoing of an oil well in the afternoon was a special attraction.
The hotels wore crowded with guests in 1882, when Ralph W. Carroll, an oil well supply dealer went from Richburg to Allentown to option leases, taking with him $3000 in cash, as farmers were suspicious of checks. Busy all day, he missed the evening train for home. It was nine o’clock when he entered the fourth Allentown hotel in search of lodgings. “There is a room,” the landlord said, “with two wide beds in it, three men in one bed, only two in the other. If you want to bunk in the bed that isn’t full, it might be better than sitting all night in a lobby chair.” With $2200 in greenbacks in his inside vest pocket, Carroll decided, so he told the writer, that his money would be safer if he slept in a chair.
The advent of saloons greatly disturbed those opposed to the liquor traffic, and, William J. McConnell, one of the most brilliant temperance advocates of that period, was engaged to deliver a series of lectures on the folly of intemperance, but the excise board continued to grant licenses. At the crest of the boom, there were 25 excise licenses issued to hotels, drug stores, saloons, and wholesale liquor stores. The increase in population was reflected in the salary of the postmaster, which was twelve times as large in 1885 as it was in 1881.
The first destructive fire was the burning, March 5, 1886, of the Allen Tavern, a pioneer inn on which the insurance had been cancelled two weeks earlier. As the town had neither a water system nor a fire department, the only defense against fire was a volunteer bucket brigade.
Washington Davis, the only blind oil producer in the New York oil fields, a Pennsylvania driller and oil-well contractor, moved to White Hill, near Allentown, in 1881, where he became part owner of six producing oil wells. His family consisted of a wife and four daughters, the youngest three years old. In 1884 while at work on a drilling well, a heavy tool became detached and. fell across his spine, injuring the base of his brain and resulting in total blindness. Partial paralysis compelled him to use a wheel chair. After a few weeks he was able, with the aid of a cane and a daughter to lead him, to walk to his oil lease and to teach two daughters, one twelve and the other fourteen, to pump the oil wells. He consulted specialists in Philadelphia who told him he would never see again. The next year he sold his oil interests on White hill and purchased a lease a mile from Pikeville, where Mrs. Davis was appointed postmistress . Members of the family read to him and wrote his letters, and neighbors dropped in to “visit.” A retentative memory kept him in touch with local and world news. Although not a member of a church, he urged his daughters to walk three miles to Sunday-school. A friend drove him to the polls on election days. Fond of music, one of his pastimes was listening to a then new invention - the phonograph. After living 36 years in darkness, death came to him in 1920 at the age of 71. His grave is on the northern slope of the Allentown cemetery, surrounded by oil wells, and in plain view from the highway.
Many land owners in the Allentown district sold their farms for what appeared to be a high price, but three wise men preferred to lease their lands on a royalty basis. Benjamin M. Vincent‘s 200-acre farm was located on the northeastern edge of Allentown. He leased it at a quarter royalty and his income exceeded $50,000 the first year. The second generation of his heirs are still receiving royalty income from the farm.
Thomas Emerson owned a farm of 120 acres across the road from the Vincent farm, and, following Mr. Vincent’s advice, he leased his land for development and accumulated a small fortune from his share of the oil. Fifty years later his heirs sold the oil rights for $25,000. When he was receiving large royalty checks, Mr. Emerson was puzzled to know what to do with the money. Once, when visiting his daughter in Wellsville, and before rising from the dinner table, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Daughter, you are just as good a cook as your mother ever was, and I want t pay you for my dinner.” Unstrapping his wallet, he handed her a certificate of deposit for $500.00.
Mark W. Pike, for whom the town of Pikeville was named, built a large sawmill there In 1855 with fifteen houses for employees and a combination school house and church in which he taught a Sunday-school class and his wife led the singing. After lumbering in Michigan for some years, he returned to Allegany County just in time to make the most fortunate deal of his lifetime. On July 3, 1878, he bought from Charles J. Langdon of Elmira, New York, a brother-in-law of Samuel L. Clemens, (Mark Twain), 1040 acres of partially cut-over timber land in Alma Township for $7.70 an acre. The tracts were spread over ten different lots. (It was on a trip to Europe with Mr. Langdon that Mark Twain wrote “Innocents Abroad,” a best seller.)
The next year, the first commercial oil well in the county was drilled within a short distance of the Langdon lands. More than 500 acres of his purchase proved to be oil bearing and some of the tracts were the richest oil lands in the county. Mr. Pike leased the Langdon acreage on a royalty basis, received a large income during his lifetime, and when he died in 1892, his heirs inherited the most valuable block of oil royalties in Alma Township.
Pioneer drillers and tool dressers in the New York oil fields wore hand made boots that weighed from ten to twelve pounds. They ware made of French Kip leather of three weights, and sizes ran from six to twelve. As many as six layers of steer hide were used for soles with an extension of an inch all around- to insure dry feet on wet derrick floors. The legs measured sixteen inches in the back and twenty inches in front, rounded to protect the knees. These boots cost from $15 to $20 a pair and lasted five years. The late Christopher Braunschweiger of Wellsville, a pioneer bootmaker, made scores of pairs of these extra heavy boots at shops in Allentown, Pikeville, and Wellsville.
In 1881, the first of two carbon black factories built in the New York oil fields was completed by Duke & McPherson on the Abram Vosburg farm, a mile west of Allentown. Duke & Norton, (William Duke, William L. Norton, and Joseph Duke), encountered a heavy pressure of gas in drilling oil wells on the farm and the lamp black factory was built to provide a market for surplus gas and reduce the pressure on the wells.
The second carbon black factory was located on the Benjamin M Vincent farm, on the northeastern edge of Allentown, and was built and operated by F. P. Plumley, who contracted with the lessees for the surplus gas from their oil wells. Carbon or lamp black was used in the manufacture of both printing and China Inks, as pigment in oil painting, in ebonizing cabinet work, and in lacquering and waxing leather. An average of 1.6 pounds of carbon black was recovered from each thousand feet of gas burned.
Due to decreasing gas pressure, the Vosburg farm factory, then owned by McEwen and Ally, was dismantled in 1886 and moved to Kane Pennsylvania, where wells registering 600 pounds pressure were being completed and gas could be contracted for at a low price. The Plumley factory on the Vincent farm was junked when it failed to return a profit.
By 1886, the choicest acreage in the Allentown district had been drilled and contractors and drilling crews began leaving for the new oil fields in Ohio — where drilling was active. Reduced demand for oil well equipment caused oil well supply companies to close their branch stores in Allentown and. merchants began to reduce inventories and seek locations in towns where the outlook was more promising. The decrease in population was gradual until early in 1893, when the narrow gauge rail road was abandoned, leaving the town without passenger, freight, express or telegraph service
The oil producer and expert driller who wandered farthest from Allentown when the boom subsided, was John Benninger, who spent four years drilling wells along the west coast of the Caspian Sea. He was next employed by the Khedive of Egypt to drill test wells near the Red. Sea. From Egypt he journeyed to the oil fields of Peru where he drilled a number of wells for an American oil company.
As the larger producing companies extended their operations to oil fields in the west, a majority of them sold their holdings to employees on long time payments. Some Allentown producers moved to Bolivar and Wel1sville and drove to and from their leases. Only once, so far as is known, were New York state oil lease employees paid in gold. That was in December, 1901, when Riley Allen shipped a sack of gold coins from San Francisco to Allentown to pay the men he employed to pump his more than 300 oil wells.
The re-pressuring of oil leases surrounding Allentown in the nineteen thirties and forties, and still continuing, brought new life and prosperity to the town as it did to the other former oil boom towns in the Allegany field. Some of the richest “flooding” territory in the county was developed within two miles of Allentown with recovery of 21,256 barrels per acre from the most productive property and several leases showing recoveries exceeding 12,000 barrels per acre. The Ebenezer Oil Company, Messer Oil Corporation, and Bradley Producing Corporation developed the largest daily average but numerous individual producers and partnerships likewise increased the production of their flood leases many fold.
A new and modern High School building was erected in l934 at a cost of $75,000 with an enrollment of 112. A dozen new and attractive homes were built and twenty old houses rebuilt and modernized after “f1ooding” was well underway. Another thing that “flooding” aided in securing for Allentown was a wide concrete through highway and “black top” for all of the crossroads that centered there.
The salary of the postmaster, always a sure sign of the growth or decline of a town, increased from $1100 in 1943 to $2100 four years later. The 1940 census gave Allentown a population of 426, with but slight change since. The trustees of the Methodist church, a landmark in Allentown, leased drilling locations on the church lot at one-eighth royalty, and two oil wells were drilled in 1938. In the first seven years the royalty checks added up to $1,536.80, and the wells are still pumping.
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AN OIL BOOM TOWN AT THE CROSSROADS