If someone ever makes an Eastern Shore version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the family at the center of things would have to hail from Parsonsburg, Md. That sleepy town of 350ish souls–it’s just east of Salisbury, on the way to Ocean City–was the epicenter of the Great Delmarva Oil Craze.
Consider, for starters, the advertisement that the Wicomico Oil & Gas Co. took out in Eastern Shore newspapers in 1914. The newly formed business wanted local investors to buy stock in a “Business Proposition fraught with possibilities so big” as to involve “what is confidently believed will [soon] prove to be one of Maryland’s richest industries.”
Yup, they were talking about “bubbling’ crude,” “Black Gold,” “Texas Tea”–all those fun synonyms for oil that pop up in the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song. Shares were priced at $1 a pop. The ad promises, “An investment today of $50 might mean for you an independent income” for life! Be warned, however: “Tomorrow may be too late.”
“If scientific research [and the] expert opinion of experienced oilmen and mining engineers count for anything, the Parsonsburg Ridge is rich in deposits of crude petroleum. … Prove your patriotism and business acumen by subscribing today for as many shares as you can afford … while the price remains at $1 per share.”
IN THE BEGINNING: FARMERS HAVING A GAS
By now you might be shaking your head: Who would believe such nonsense? Well, the answer to that question runs into the tens of thousands of people all around the country. It’s a safe bet that those multitudes of investors included quite a few people who were just as smart and capable as you and I, maybe even more so.
It’s easy to look back at a turn of events like the Delmarva Oil Craze and laugh. It’s more interesting to try and see it through the eyes of people back then, who couldn’t see what the future held.
This strange chapter begins in a light and comic manner. Here is the opening sequence:
• Around 1900, a farmer named “Mr. White” sunk a well three miles north of Parsonsburg. He heard a strange gurgling noise as he went about that work, but he didn’t bother to try and figure out what caused it.
• A few years later, farmer John W. Wimbrow dug a well. At a depth of 36 feet, he heard a gurgling. Then, much to his surprise, he struck a volume of flammable gas that just kept spouting and spouting, no end in sight.
• Word got around. Mr. White remembered how his well had gurgled a few years before. Other farmers started talking about various gurgling they had heard while digging on their properties. Everyone wondered: How much gas was down there?
• Mr. Wimbrow hooked up a pipe, ran it into his house, and used the gas to fuel his stove. His daughter, Mrs. Jessie Johnson, testified later that “the flame was so hot in our cookstove that it would boil a kettle of water in three minutes.”
• At first, it was basically just fun times. Mr. Wimbrow jerry-rigged a fancy gas lamp for his dining room. Other farmers dug out connections to their underground gas and hooked it up to this or that. Robert Smith went so far as to rig up a gas-powered street lamp in front of his house.
• Word spread to neighboring towns, and then beyond. Historian George H. Corddry quotes one resident’s later recollection of the early days of the Oil Craze:
“The Baltimore, Chesapeake & Atlantic Railway arranged weekly excursions from Claiborne, Easton, Salisbury, and Ocean City. Curious spectators flocked to the well by the trainload, and Mr. Wimbrow had a control valve placed on the well so that he could turn on the gas, light it, and explain the entire procedure to the visitors.”
FROM SLICK GIMMICK TO CRUDE DREAMS
By 1910 lots of folks had started to wonder about these events in a more serious way. Could the underground gas provide power to all of Parsonsburg? Might there be enough to run a pipeline to Salisbury and turn a profit? Could the future be even bigger than that?
The most tantalizing question was this: Would this discovery follow a familiar pattern seen in towns in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere. First comes the discovery of gas; then comes the discovery of crude oil. Maybe Parsonsburg would become a Delmarva version of Beaumont, Tex., where, in 1901, the “Lucas gusher” at the now-world-famous Spindletop well had launched the Texas oil boom? Until the day it happened, the experts had all scoffed at that possibility.
The first company to nose around the so-called “Parsonsburg Ridge” was the Maryland Oil & Gas Company. In August 1910, the Baltimore Sun reported that this newly formed firm had signed conditional drilling leases covering 8,000 acres–the leases would kick in if and when a gusher of gas or oil turned up. The firm’s first step involved moving a “pile-driving rig” onto Mr. Whimbrow’s property so as to sink a cylinder into the ground, collect some gas, and send it out for chemical analysis.
That Parsonsburg gas had already passed preliminary inspection:
“An experiment was made with the gas as an illuminant. In its raw state the flame is blue and the candle-power is not high. When mixed with air and used with a mantle a wonderfully fine light is produced.”
In another story that same week, the Sun relayed rumors about oilmen from West Virginia and other “foreign” locales seen wandering about Wicomico and Worcester counties, chatting with farmers and inspecting the landscape. The out-of-towners did not seem overly concerned about the fact that Maryland Oil and Gas had a head start, expressing confidence that “there is plenty in the field for all.”
That week’s newspaper stories also included some geological speculation about how carbon-laden “ancient forests” might have been hermetically sealed under clay in a way known to create major oil and gas deposits found elsewhere. One note of skepticism appeared near the end of one story:
“The neighborhood is divided as to what the gas is. Some say it is real natural gas and others incline to the belief that it is a big deposit of marsh gas.”
THE EXPERTS STEP UP ON PARSONSBURG RIDGE
By the end of that year, the Craze was definitely underway. The Baltimore Sun:
“Land in the vicinity of Parsonsburg has gone out of reach in price, and residents of that section are sanguine of success that oil or gas will be found.”
It really did look like more than a pipe dream, especially to folks who trusted in expert opinion and believed in science. Early on, the Maryland Geological Survey predicted that “oil and gas in large quantities” would “probably” turn up. One of the country’s biggest oil companies, Pure, sent a top in-house expert named A.L. Bates to Parsonsburg. The Oil and Gas Journal reported:
“Mr. Bates seems to be much impressed with the possibility of finding oil in this county and as he is a man of large experience, his opinion should be worthy of respect.”
The article went on to hint strongly that Bates was negotiating leases with local farmers on Pure’s behalf. Such negotiations had already spread out of Wicomico County and into Worcester County and Southern Delaware.
The industry’s biggest celebrity showed up on the scene, too. Anthony Francis Lucas was to crude oil back then what Bill Gates is to our modern computers. His incredible strike at Spindletop had captured worldwide attention. Here is the Baltimore Sun, paraphrasing Lucas after conducting an interview:
“The evidence of prospects [is] better in this particular field than that which led him to discover in Texas the Beaumont section of the famous Lucas gusher.”
A charismatic Croatian immigrant, Lucas speculated that the Parsonsburg Ridge lay atop a magnificent subterranean river of oil that ran from Pennsylvania down to Alabama. Both of those states had booming young oil industries in those years. These judgments from top-of-the-line experts were what lay behind summaries of the situation like this one from the Oil and Gas Journal:
“A successful strike [at Parsonsburg] … would cause a wave of prosperity to sweep over this section which would be phenomenal in its scope. There seems to be more reason to hope for success with every new venture which is opened up here, and within a short time it may be possible for us to chronicle something of a definite nature which would be of everlasting benefit to this community.”
The Wilmington Evening Journal soon reported: “Confidence in gas and oil prospects [in and around Parsonsburg] has become so strong that conservative businessmen” had become quite eager to buy into the stock offerings of companies like the aforementioned Wicomico Gas & Oil.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
There is always a naysayer, isn’t there? In this case, the doubting Thomas was the Maryland Geological Survey. Experts there had once expressed high hopes, as we have seen, but upon further review, they changed their tune. A brief writeup on Parsonsburg in the 1918 edition of the Surface and Underground Water Resources of Maryland consisted of one red flag after another.
For starters, the evidence that had everyone excited came from shallow wells, while big strikes always arose from much deeper down. Such “surface indications” are notoriously unreliable, the report warned, and “would, if relied upon, lead to some very expensive and probably disappointing ventures.”
In addition, chemical analysis of the Parsonsburg gas revealed only one form of hydrocarbon, methane–the gas in productive strikes elsewhere contained multiple different hydrocarbons. This, the Geological Survey said, “suggests that this gas comes from a buried swamp, local in distribution.” In other words, the chances were pretty slim that this gas was connected to a vast underground river of oil.
There were other red flags in that report, too, but you get the idea: Overall, the report concluded, the gas at Parsonsburg mostly likely involved “a pool of marsh gas and not a deep-seated, large pool or gas or oil.”
THE END: GOING OUT WITH A WHIMPER
There’s not much more to the story. The minority voice in the wilderness won the debate. Two different companies ran through every last cent of their investors’ money. No one who bought stock in either Wicomico Oil or St. Martins Oil struck it rich–or even got their money back. Hopefully, some local farmers got to pocket some small bit of income from those leases they signed.
Two major wells were dug. While working on the first, crews got 600 feet down before hitting a layer of sand composite that proved impassable. When the second well got down to 1,000 feet, there was a brief moment of elation when small amounts of a dark liquid appeared. But then workmen kept digging and digging, down to 1,900 feet, with no further sign of progress. The Delmarva Oil Craze was over.
There is one entertaining bit of oral history to share before wrapping this up. The old photos you see here show Wicomico Oil executives celebrating a rare happy moment in the company’s history–the opening of a gas pipeline that briefly provided power to homes in the main part of Parsonsburg. The photos appear in a book from the “Postcard History Series” titled Wicomico County and Delmar. Author John E Jacob included this snippet in a caption:
“The story is that one Sunday the people returned from church to find their kitchens flooded. Water was coming through the gas pipes.”
The last of the true believers was St. Martins Oil and Gas, a Baltimore company that bought out Wicomico Oil at some point and kept on digging. In 1923, St. Martins landed in bankruptcy court. The Wilmington Evening Journal took note of that filing:
“The action recalls the oil boom in Wicomico County in 1913, which created interest in all sections of this country and drew scores of realtors, representatives of financial interests, geologists, promoters, prospectors, and many others to the county.”
Here is the Wilmington Morning News:
“Although the last derrick has been dismantled and the county has long since devoted impartial attention to the acquisition of substantial wealth by the cultivation and development of the soil, the oil boom of 1913 will remain in the memory” of everyone who lived through it.
If you are a collector of such things, you can find stock certificates from Wicomico Oil & Gas here and there from online shops that cater to collectors. Here is one, for example. Do you remember how that stock had a price tag of $1 back when so many oil-world experts regarded the Parsonsburg project as full of hope and promise? Well, that certificate now costs $49.95 as a keepsake.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on May 2, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Thank you very much for reading.
NOTE: I located both of the photos that appear in the text here in a book from the “Postcard History Series” called Wicomico County and Delmar. The image with the smaller group of people is credited in the book to the collection of a woman named Hilda Fowler. The other one, with the larger group, is in the Thurston collection at the Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture.