Transcribed & Submitted by Richard Palmer
Bolivar Breeze, April 30, 1908
INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES F. FOX.
Was Postmaster at Richburg in The Days of the Oil Boom
Back in the Eighties.
By John P. Herrick
DES MOINES, IOWA, April 24. - You find them everywhere - men who had a hand in shaping the oil booms of the eastern fields and have drifted west to grow up with the country. Yesterday afternoon at a ball game I met Charles F. Fox, manager for the Postal Telegraph Company in the eighth district, embracing Iowa, South Dakota, and parts of Minnesota, Missouri and Illinois. Mr. Fox has been in Des Moines eighteen years and has held this present position as district manager for the Postal Telegraph since 1901, having been in the employ of the company since 1890.
Mr. Fox was postmaster of Richburg during the boom days and if he can get you off in a corner he will talk for hours about the lively times in the oil regions early in the eighties. He can recall the names of hundreds of the residents of Richburg in the days of the boom and if he has asked me what has become of one of his old acquaintances, he has asked for a thousand of them. All of the old-timers will remember Mr. Fox. I asked him to tell me something of interest for my readers concerning the Richburg of the long ago - lively Richburg, wicked Richburg, that he knew and of which I have heard so much.
"When the oil boom broke loose over in Allegany County I was employed in the telegraph department of the United Pipe Line Company in Bradford," said Mr. Fox, by way of breaking the ice. The fever caught me along with hundreds of others, and I secured a position as train dispatcher for the Allegany Central at Bolivar. If I remember correctly that was in August 1881. In November of that year I was made station agent at Richburg and agent for the American and United States express companies. The Allegany Central was doing a land office business then and the yards which had a capacity of fifty cars were always full and there were long stretches of oil supplies piled up along the tracks for many rods in each direction from the station. My salary as ticket and freight agent was $100 a month and my commissions from the express companies often exceeded $225 a month.
"Every evening there was a car of dressed beef from Olean by express. Boilers, engines, drilling cables and other heavy things came by express in order to avoid the delay that a freight shipment meant. It was a case of get it there quick and never mind the expense. Wells were going down in all direction and contractors and producers were in feverish haste to tap the sand and bring in the wells.
"And Richburg was a lively town in more ways than one. Within a few blocks of the railroad station there were six dance houses going night and day. The town then had about 8,000 population, largely transient and they came from all points of the compass. Everything considered, it as an orderly place, only one or two murders and the people were extremely charitable. If any man met with misfortune, a hat was passed and in an hour there would be a few hundred dollars gathered to aid him.
"The boys in town used to have lots of fun with the farmers who came in with apples, cabbage and other farm truck. The farmer who started up Main street with a load of apples was lucky if he had his bags left when he had traveled ten blocks. Houses and stores were rushed up in a night, nearly all hemlock structures and it was always a puzzle to me why the town had so few fires. Before there were boarding houses and hotels enough to take care of the crowds that flocked in, many a night I saw as many as 200 men sleeping under the maple trees in the village park with nothing over them except the sky. Yet robberies were few. On rainy nights a man counted himself lucky who could exchange a dollar for the privilege of sleeping on a billiard table.
"In the height of the boom Richburg had a morning and evening newspaper, two banks, a fine opera house, a famous hose racing team, two railroads and the best paying post office in Allegany County. I had been in Richburg only a few months when a violent post office fight developed. More fun than anything else. I got into the game. Chester A. Arthur was president, D.P. Richardson of Angelica was congressman and here was a bitter factional fight all over the state. It was in the days of the Stalwarts and the Half Breeds, as the Republican factions were termed. There were three candidates, J.S. Rowley, J.M. Place and myself. The fight became so bitter that Congressman Richardson, to shunt the responsibility on to someone else proposed that the people elect the postmaster. This is probably the only election of the kind ever held in the country and excitement ran high.
"As I recall about 2,500 votes were cast, some from Bolivar, and even the gravel train was run over from Nile to let the section hands vote. The polls were open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The judges of election were Charles H. Brown and A.D. Rider, and the tellers were Patrick Hanrahan and C.J. Johnson. The whole town suspended work while the election was going on and that night there was a regular Fourth of July celebration. It was a close fight, my majority being less than 250. Congressman Richardson recommended me but J.M. Place, then a newspaper correspondent violently attacked me in the press and it was several months before my commission came. Place is in Washington, D.C., now and doing well. He stops off in Des Moines to see me every year or two, as he is traveling on the road, and we often laugh over the lively fight we had over the Richburg post office.
When I took charge of the Richburg post office the salary was $1,600 a year and we were allowed two clerks. Within a short time the salary was $1,800 a year, and when I resigned, three years later, the office had been reduced to fourth class, the salary about $900 a year and no help provided. There was so little interest in who was postmaster when the boom was over that my resignation was not accepted for six months after I sent it in, so I had nearly as much trouble getting out of the office as I had getting into it.
"We had 1,000 call boxes and 300 lock boxes in use in the office in boom times and it required one clerk to keep on the jump to wait on the general delivery. When the seven o'clock mail came in the evenings, there would be a line in double file reaching from the delivery window, a distance of 400 feet down the street. Saturday evenings we were compelled to keep the office open until midnight to take care of the call for money orders from men who had received their wages and wanted to send part of it to their families in the lower oil country.
"The Baum Opera House in Richburg was on the Bradford circuit and the people of the boom town who were fond of the theatre had an opportunity to see good attractions often. If I remember correctly the Baum Opera House was opened by Fay Templeton and many other brilliant theatrical lights were seen from time to time. John L. Sullivan's company of athletes under the management of Billy Madden held forth at the Baum for three nights. The seats were taken out and it was 'standing room only' at a dollar a had - and the place was packed. The national game in Richburg in those days was not baseball but poker - there were 25 joints running.
One of the famous organizations of Richburg was Ackerman Hose running team, composed of some of the best sprinters in the country. Among them were Harry Johnson, the first man to run 100 yards in 9 5/6 seconds, M.K. Kettleman, George Smith, Billy Quirk, Fred W. Stone, Harry Bethune, Dad Moulton and others whose names I do not now recall. The couplers were Brett and De Vore and there were a number of ten second men on the team made a world's record at the state tournament in Bradford in a hub and hub race. Since I came to Des Moines I have from time to time met many of the members of that famous running team.
"I met Dad Mouton in Burlington two or three years ago with a troupe of female bicycle riders. He was broke and I staked him and he came to Des Moines and put on a show that made him a fat roll. A letter received from Dad a few days ago informed me that he is now athletic instructor at Stanford University. Fred W. Smith is instructor of the Chicago Athletic Club. A number of the runners have grown rich up in the new northwest but Kettleman has passed over the long and lonesome trail.
"Every time I go east to a manager's meeting in the New York office I promise myself a visit to Richburg and Bolivar, but some way it never seems convenient to stop off on the way home. I often long for the free and easy life of the oil regions - the good fellowship, the lack of class distinction - the old friendships of the Days That Were. If the rise o Richburg was rapid the decline was swift. When the Cherry Grove boom was in full swing, contractors and producers were as anxious to get out of Richburg as they had been to get in.
"Oil property was offered at ridiculously low prices - for less than the junk was worth and again oil well supplies were sent by express - down to the new and more promising
el Dorado. But Cherry Grove was a bubble and men who stayed by the old and reliable Allegany field have, I understand, all prospered. It is that way everywhere, the pioneers blaze the way but the men who come after them reap the profits."
Mr. Fox is an expert telegrapher and for the benefit of my readers I asked him what effects wireless telegraphy would have on the land lines and cables. he says that for many years, at least, the wireless system will not interfere at all with the present wire systems and cable lines. He says that atmospheric difficulties prevent the messages being directed with accuracy and safety.
There is great difficulty in maintaining secrecy in transmission of messages. Ships and stations if their instruments are attuned rightly can pick up messages, and information not intended for them. No cipher code can be made up that cannot be solved by experts and translated. These are some of the reasons why Mr. Fox says that it will be a long time before wireless telegraphy will seriously interfere with the wire systems in the transmission of commercial messages.
It ma interest my readers to learn from Mr. Fox that it is now possible to send three messages at once over a wire, a telegraph message each way and at the same time carry on a telephone conversation on the same wire. Such a line is in operation from from Des Moines to Fort Dodge, a distance of 150 miles. Now won't some man invent a smokeless and and odorless benzine buggy? J.P.H.