Transcribed by Crist Middaugh
Spectrum - September 22, 1985
Back in time in Bolivar
Text and photos by Joan Dickenson
When Mert Starr, at age 20, moved to Bolivar during the 1880’s oil boom, to doctor told him, “Son, you’ve got tuberculosis so bad you’ll never live to be 30.”
Mert took a job in the oil fields anyway. He also started taking oil as a medicine, one tablespoon a day, right out of the ground.
The folk remedy must have agreed with him, because when Mert Starr died, sometime in the 1960’s, he was 102 years old. He didn’t die of TB either.
“He used to go up to the school to show the kids that a 102-year-old man could stand on his head,” relates Ethyl Burdick, honorary curator of the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar. “One day, when he was standing on his head on the landing of the stairs, he fell - that’s how he died.”
Stories like this one - some apocryphal, some gospel truth - are Mong the delights offered at the museum. The old-fashioned building with its hardwood floors and antique furniture abounds with intriguing artifacts, and the curator, Gordon Burdick, and his wife Ethyl, honorary curator, can tell the story of every one.
For instance, there’s a photo of Bolivar’s first car. Its owner, Erie Wilson, brought it up on train from Olean in 1901.
“Everyone was afraid of it,” says Ethyl, “but finally, an oil-well shooter, Mel Van Curen, dated to take a ride with him. Then everyone wanted to ride in it. It went 3- miles per hour. The guys figured it could race any horse, so they took it up to Bolivar racetrack, up where the school is now, and held a race.
“The car only came out one yard ahead, so they decided to keep horse for a while,” she says.
Then there’s Howard Millard’s old salt pail.
“The Indians used to camp near Millard’s place,” Ethyl says.
“They would borrow the pail to cook venison in, and bring it back half-full of salt. There was a salt spring on Salt Rising Road; the Indian women used to cook down salt water to extract the salt.
“But no one knows where the spring is,” she continues. “They say that when the white people came in and took over the area, the Indians destroyed the salt spring - and to this day, no one’s ever been able to find it.”
The museum also has a wooden log with a piece of metal driven through it - but not by human hands. The metal was driving into the wood by the force of a tornado that devastated the Vandermark Road, near Elm Valley, in 1920.
“A lady used to tell how the tornado picked up her piano, lifted it above her barn, and carried it over to the other side into a field,” Burdick recalls.
Moving to the next exhibit, he picks up an artifact made of wood and metal.
“This is Jim McIntyre’s scaling hammer,” he says. “When logs were sent to the mill, you had to mark them so the Sawyer would know whose they were. Jim would hit his logs with this hammer and brand them with his name.”
Next to the display of old tools is a metal cylinder, about 10 inches in diameter and a foot high.
“This is a World War I shell,” Burdick explains. “It was donated by Fenton Yehl, the former mayor.”
Nearby lies a long metal object that turns out to be a piece of narrow-gauge railroad track that used to connect Bolivar and Wellsville.
“It lasted only about 12 years, from 1881 to 1893,” Gordon says. “it originated in Wellsville and crossed Norton Summit on the way to Bolivar, but to get across, it had to wind around all the way to Petrol on one side, and then over to Knights Creek.”
The museum also contains the work of several local artists, including retired oilman Dick Wood, who built a model oil rig for the museum; Phil Rogers, who is celebrated for his patchwork-and-tie quilts; and Bob Jordan, who makes “windjammer” mobiles out of scrap wood from the old oil tanks. Each windjammer takes 100 hours to make, and the intriguing art objects are collapsible for easy carrying.
In addition to historical artifacts, the museum boasts several electric models that show how the old oilfields really worked. There’s a vertical section of an early oil well, set in motion by a switch, that shows how the valves actually pump the oil out of the ground.
There’s a scale model of an entire oil field, complete with power house, lines and jacks, built by young Chris Kellner and lent to the museum. There’s a model oil-fashioned sawmill.
There’s also a life-size model - again operated by electricity - of an old cable-tool right actually engaged in the drilling process, using a rope nearly four inches thick.
“There’s a bit on the end of that rope,” Burdick explains, “and that’s what drills the well. The old drillers used to say that when the wire cable are in and replaced the rope, they couldn’t drill any more - the cable had no snap to it, they said.”
The back room that houses the cable-tool rig will be named the Frank Room after the longtime Bolivar oilman who died in 1982. The hat and lunch pail that Hungerford took to the oilfields every day for years have also been donated to the museum.
Among the early American artifacts is the telephone switchboard used in Bolivar until dial phones came in, as well as one of the very first sewing machines ever made.
“Sewing machines came out in 1851, and this one’s from 1854,” Ethyl Burdick says.
The museum also has several women’s costumes from the 1880’s including a brown velveteen taffeta underslip “that doesn’t have a tear in it,” Burdick adds. The brown jacket-dress combination was given to Wilma Bartlett by Sara Burlington in ’76, according to its label.
There’s also a wedding gown, circa 1900, that consists of a hand-embroidered overdress and a snowy satin underdress.
An artifact that will bring back memories in many local residents is the doctor’s bag carried by Dr. Lawrence Hackett, who practiced in Bolivar for 50 years and died in the 1960s.
“Half the residents of Bolivar were brought into this world by Dr. Hackett, using just what’s in that bag,” Burdick recalls.
Hackett’s office was upstairs in what is now the Key Bank building. One day, the doctor fell downstairs - “and he never felt right again,” Burdick adds.
The newest attraction of the Pioneer Oil Museum, just opened this week, is the Simon Bolivar Room, which houses artifacts honoring the great South American liberator for whom Bolivar is named.
“We were the first town to be named after Simon Bolivar,” Ethyl Burdick says. “The big statue of him is from the Venezuelan exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. The mayor’s brother asked the exhibitors if we could have it.”
The museum also boasts a smaller metal bust of the liberator, a gift from a Venezuelan delegation that visited Bolivar in 1984.
Other attractions in the Simon Bolivar Room include a drawing of Bolivar’s natal home, “Casa Natal de Liberator”; a portrait, based on Venezuelan schoolchildren’s conception of the man they look upon as “their George Washington,” in Ethyl Burdick’s phrase; a selection of artwork given to the people of Bolivar by the citizens of Venezuela; a Panamanian mole; a display honoring the Peruvian llama; a fragment of an Inca temple; and other examples of art, craft and literature from South America.
Supported chiefly by the New York State Oil Producers Association and by private donations, the Pioneer Oil Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Visitors who would like a memento of their time in Bolivar may buy the sets of notecards the museum is selling as a fundraiser. A local artist, Bruce Fyfe, did the drawings and had the cards printed. In rustic style, they depict various characteristic Bolivar scenes.