The Loudon oil field is an area located in eastern Fayette County and parts of western Effingham County. The discovery of its oil stockpile in the late 1930’s, transformed Altamont, St. Elmo, and other surrounding communities.
By the 1940’s, according to some accounts, the Loudon oil field was the second largest oil producer after Texas. This is the story of the Loudon oil Field.
Early Oil Drilling.
Before the oil boom, multiple people hoping to strike it rich tried to drill for oil in the area.
In 1924, Stock Holders Oil & Gas set up a drill, a mile and a half southwest of Altamont. During construction, the company ran out of money and planned an audacious effort to raise enough money to continue construction. The firm threw a fundraiser, which included a carnival, rodeo, and wedding. According to legend, the bride’s name was Laveta Jelly, and the during the shenanigans, the rodeo cowboys lost the horses they borrowed from Altamont locals George Duckwitz and Fred Tappendorf. The drill never found oil.
In the 1930’s, a drill hit oil on the Henry Lilly Farm, north of Wright’s Corner in Fayette County. The drilling process used on the Lilly Farm was inefficient and expensive, meaning the well failed to produce a significant amount of oil. (“Hen” Lilly later became famous for refusing to sell his land to big oil companies).
However, news of the discovery reached Carter Oil Company. Carter Oil built a test well on the property of Mary Miller in northeast Fayette County and installed a new, more efficient drill. The rotary drilling rig, powered by two diesel engines reduced the average drilling time from three weeks to four days. Crowds of bewildered locals gathered to watch the transportation and installation of the massive rotary drill.
In September 1937, the Mary Miller test well No. 1, hit oil at 1600 feet. The oil boom had begun.
The oil boom attracted hordes of workers from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, and the largest oil companies in America like Shell, Texas Co. (Texaco), and Standard Oil set up operations in the area.
By 1940, St. Elmo’s population increased to 3,000 and Altamont’s grew to 2,100. The influx of workers created a housing crisis. With a lack of vacant living space, workers rented rooms in family homes, and some workers slept on the floor in barns next to the horses.
Altamont, during this period, had a quiet, residential feel, which attracted office workers and oil workers with families. Oil workers stayed in the Altamont Hotel at the end of Adams Street, near the present-day government housing. They also lodged with Altamont residents including my Great-Grandfather, Louis Wendling who rented out two rooms of his house to workers.
In 1938, Carter Oil Company built Carter Camp, a group of houses in the northeast part of Altamont for Carter Oil Company employees and families. (Some of the Carterville houses are still standing.)
The boom, which happened during the latter part of the Great Depression, brought employment opportunities to Altamont during a time when they were desperately needed. Some companies moved their business to Altamont, including Halliburton, which for a brief time rented a garage for cement production. The oil fields also hired local high schoolers including my grandfather, Bill Wendling. He hitchhiked from Altamont during the summers, to repair oil pumps near St. Elmo, in sweltering 90-degree weather until he was drafted into World War II in 1945.
While Altamont was affected by the oil boom, St. Elmo was the epicenter of the blast. St. Elmo’s population reached 3,000 around 1939. The once quiet streets of St. Elmo were flooded with people, movie theaters were built, restaurants had long lines, and multiple taverns were built. Wooden oil derricks sprung up around the town, engulfing the once starlit nights with artificial light. The St. Elmo airport runway, where Charles Lindbergh once landed his Spirit of St. Louis plane, was congested with oil company airplanes. St. Elmo even had a football team, a rarity for most small towns in the area.
The oil boom also brought rampant crime. St. Elmo’s taverns were filled with drunks hellbent on starting fights, which sometimes escalated. One story involved a WPA worker (A Works Progress Administration employee, part of FDR’s New Deal.) The drunk and rowdy man stumbled out of the tavern and was beat to death by a woman wielding a two-by-four. Illegal gambling rackets were also popular in St. Elmo taverns.
By the 1950’s, much of the crime had diminished. But the legacy still remains. (This crime wave is supposedly the reason why St. Elmo doesn’t have taverns anymore.)
Workplace safety was also an issue. A news clipping from a Nov. 20, 1938, Decatur Herald, recalls a story about a Beecher City man knocked unconscious by a machine on the oil well. He fell into the oil pit below and luckily was saved by his terrified co-workers. Not all workers were lucky. Some suffered severe burns, or were crushed to death by collapsing oil derricks. In 1941, Carter Oil Company began offering banquets to oil crews that could go six months without disabling accidents.
The flammable nature of oil also brought a separate type of calamity, explosions. In 1938, an oil refinery on the outskirts of St. Elmo exploded with flames reaching 400ft. into the air. An article from the Oct. 12, 1938, Decatur Daily Review states “residents piled belongings into cars and wagons, ready to evacuate the town, only a wind from the south kept the fire from sweeping into town…the worst blast occurred at 10:30 P.M. when streets two blocks away were so brilliantly illuminated, persons could recognize each other.”
Oil production in the Loudon oil field declined in the 1960’s. The Carter Oil Company, which became Exxon, sold its shares in the Loudon field in the 1990’s.
Production in the area isn’t near the levels of the boom days. The wooden derricks, the explosions, packed movie theaters and bustling Main Street are now fading memories. But oil production still plays an important role in the area, with multiple oil facilities still in operation.
Altamont Area Centennial Book. 1971
Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book. 1946
Various Newspaper Archives from the Decatur Herald and Decatur Daily Review accessed from newspapers.com