Black Gold: The Loudon Oil Field Story

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.

 

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Stock Holders Oil & Gas Company Derrick. Southwest of Altamont. 1920’s.

Boom Towns.

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.

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A Carter Camp home in northeast Altamont.

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.”

Decline

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.

Sources:

Altamont Area Centennial Book. 1971

Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book. 1946

PJ Ryan http://www.bcity.efingham.k12.il.us/Community%20History/loudon_oil_field.htm

Various Newspaper Archives from the Decatur Herald and Decatur Daily Review accessed from newspapers.com

28 thoughts

  1. Good article. My dad (Clayton Wallace) came up from Oklahoma in the 1940. At that time he work for Carter Oil Co. My dad was a field superintendent at St Elmo ( Smith tool shop). Dad die in 1969. He work in the oil business for 42 years. First it was Carter oil then Humble oil, Exxon, Exxon- Mobile oil

  2. My dad (Jim Forbes) bought a shop building from the old carter camp just off of the avena rd in 1974, moved it to Post Oak and this was the beginning of his machanic shop and salvage yard. He expanded the building over the years which is still in use today.

    1. I knew your dad well, he was a good man, I bought a 1962 Ford Galaxy from him on credit. It was a good sound car.

  3. I was a student at Loudon School I the 1950’s. A story I read in the Weekly Reader one day at school really made a lasting impression on this young student. It listed the Loudon Oil Field as one of the areas to be targeted if the Russians ever bombed the United States!

    1. I’ve heard the same rumor only it was Patoka Oil tank Farm was the possible target!

      My father was transfered from “Loisiana to Oklahoma to Montana. ..and lastly St.Elmo IL. with Carter Oil…Humble Pipeline….and then lastly called Exxon” in 1959….the oil boom sealed my fate from then on…..my father had one last transfer after the oilfield sort of died….off-shore Grand Island, Loisiana until he died in 1999…..he was then living in Emerson Arkansas.

      I worked for Clough Trucking tank truck service for several years after I graduated in 1970….some mighty fond memories of Wright’s Corner …the people and the old store we gathered at to exchange stories…some lies and some truth….mostly bull-sh–!@@!

  4. In 1938 I was 5 years old and I remember the explosion that shook St. Elmo. My dad loaded the family in the car along with my grandmother, the neighbor lady and her daughter and drove out to the airport west of town and watched the fire. When it had died down we went home and went to bed. Just as dad dozed off the roll up blind next to the bed let loose and flew to the top of the window. Dad flew out of beds thinking it was an explosion.

    I remember there were as we called them “Oil people” living in tents in the park, garages, shanties or anywhere else they could find to live. Dad made the garage into an apartment and rented it to some people from Oklahoma.

    I attended first grade in 1939 and was told not to cut across the park going to school or home. My folks did not trust some of the people living there. I did and lost the goggles off my aviator cap, I didn’t tell my dad for 3 or 4 years.

    My first grade teacher Mrs. Bledso was also from Oklahoma or Texas. I’m a few years older now and living in California a long way from St. Elmo . I still have family in St. Elmo and come back once in awhile for the Haslett reunion.

    Memories !!

  5. I was raised in the Loudon Oil Field area. My Grandma Caddie Rodgers run the store at Wrights Corner. So many good memories about that store. I learned to make change sitting on the counter at her store, and smiled my way into some ice cream cones by the oil field workers. John Clough was the one who bought me more ice cream then anyone. He didn’t have to, as Grandma Caddie let me have all I wanted. That will always be home for me, even though the store was finally torn down. Oh so many memories. I could go on an on. Fun time to grow up.

    1. After Caddie passed away in the early 70’s Glen and Don rented her old house out to me “for a couple of years”….almost froze to death in the winters for lack of good heat.

      I worked for John and Norman Clough during that time period…Wright’s Store was a popular site for the oilfield workers to hang out and eat Irma’s big thick ham sandwiches.

  6. I have fond memories of growing up in my Grandmother’s store in the middle of the oil field. Grandma Caddie Rogers ran the store at Wrights Corner. I sit on the counter of the store starting about the age of 3 and was taught to make change. All I had to do was smile at the oil workers, when they come in, and they would buy me an ice cream cone. John Clough was my favorite, and probably bought me the most ice cream. I was spoiled rotten. John gave me a kitten, when I was 5,raised right behind the store, which lived to be 18 years old. Though were the good old days, even if we were all poor. So thankful to be raised in that area of Loudon Township. And you could play outside in the dark because of the gas burning off from the wells. Oh to be back in that time!

  7. My grandfather Joe Brooks came to Illinois following the oil boom. They were from Arkansas and had traveled to Kansas and Oklahoma before settling in Illinois. Mother was 12 at that time. He worked some for Cloughs, but also had his own truck. I was told by mother that he hauled water to the oil fields. Later he used his truck to move houses. Much later in my adult years a BC resident I knew all my life told me how the locals resented the Okies as they called them. He even carried a poem that another local had written concerning the Okies. It was fascinating to read this report. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks for sharing! My children’s family are from Loudon and much of the oil was discovered on a relative’s land. I had the privilege of relatives sharing their copies of the legal documents of illiterate people that practically sold their mineral rights to next to nothing and how others were exploited by the oil industry. Today, the oil industry exploits its employees, violate labor laws as well as EPA laws and their fines are well below profits. The locals view it as a public nuisance and would rather have the companies pay for their environmental mess and just go away!

  9. Great stories. My families are from St.Elmo and Beecher City. In fact in the 60’s my Grandpa and Grandma ( Harry and Faye Hissong ) owed the store. It was called Hissong Grocery’s. They sold it in 1967 and moved to St. Elmo. My grandma keep old grocery debt’s all those years, where people charged there grocery’s. I once told her grandma why do you keep them, her reply was it’s old memories of good times and bad. I remember going there and eating Dixie cup ice cream, and chewing hotdog gum and jaw breakers. In the basement of the store my Uncle Lavern had a beauty shop there, before he went to Vietnam in 1967. Everytime I pass the place where it used to stand, I always remember things that happened there as I was a child. My dad ( Leon Holman and grandpa Fred Holman worked in the oil fields ). After my grandpa Hissong moved to St. Elmo he went to work for Dave Hill Sr. in the oil fields just down from the store.

  10. The man that was killed in a bar in St. Elmo after being hit on the head with a two by four was a first cousin of my Moms, Willard Mckensey (sp) We lived near Carter Camp. My Dad , Glen Patterson bought one of their houses & moved it to our farm.

  11. My Dad, Russell Carroll, came to Pana as manager of Loudon Pipeline in 1948. By that time it was connected to The Illinois Farm Supply Refinery in Pana. He worked with Wilmer Corley, Jake Wonus and guys I don’t recall now. In 1955-56, my brother,Richard Carroll, had the job of walking the pipeline checking for leaks..FS owned the refinery until 1963, then was sold to private owners, went down hill from there. My Dad moved to Bloomington in 1963, retired from Growmark. He had many good friends from the Loudon area..

  12. My dad, Russell Carroll came to Pana to manage Loudon Pipeline at Illinois Farm Supply refinery in 1948. He worked with Wilmer Corley, Jake Wonus plus others. My brother, Richard Carroll worked in the Loudon Field walking the line for leaks in 1955-56. The FS refinery in Pana was sold to private parties in 1963. My dad moved to Bloomington working for Growmark.

  13. I’m from St. Elmo now live in Indiana. My sister lives in the old school house from one of the other oil camps named William’s Camp. It was north west of St. Elmo off of the Avena Road.

    1. Exxon’s Loudon Pump Station was at the most nouthern end of Avena Road ….there was a little office shanty next to the pump station ….my father’s work head-quarters for several years….I bet it’s been deserted for years now!….that was 50 years ago!

  14. I was born in Altamont in 1941 after my parents came up from the boom towns of Oklahoma to follow the Carter Oil drilling rigs. We moved to Williams Camp off Avena road about 1943 or 1944. Growing up in Williams Camp was the best experience a child could have. It was like taking a chunk of southern Oklahoma and planting it in southern Ilinois. We all left there with Oklahoma accents that stays with me today. We had our own grocery store, post office (Pruett) and school through 6th grade.After that we had to bus into Brownstown. We had own own water supply, sewage system, and of course natural gas to every house. It was a true community bonded by a common work ethic, living through hard times, and sharing our lives together, It seems that almost every mother had my my mothers permission to whip me when I was misbehaving. I feared Audie Purcell, Bama Sheafor, Mrs. Hopkins, Mrs. Pullen and Mrs. Dowell more than my own mother. Most families moved back to Oklahoma after retirement or into St. Elmo, Brownstown or Altamont. It is sad to see the old camp site is now a soybean field, the school a residence, and the store and water tower gone. Times change but those of us who grew up there treasure that time

    1. Interesting! My Grandparents were William and Lola Pruett, they lived in the town of Iola which also had oil wells near by. We also had Pruett relation living in St. Elmo. I didn’t know any of this history about the oil wells. Thanks for posting.

  15. I remember all of the wonderful stories my parents and their friends told about the “oil boom days “.Charles Lindbergh liked to stay at the St.Elmo Hotel to play cards with the locals, and Amelia Earhardt landed at the St.Elmo airport as did Jimmy Doolittle who did aerial maneuvers.My grandpa Cal Washburn found the oil pool in Wheatland with a witching stick like they used to find water.He called it his “doodle bug “. They had a huge explosion just east of main street that was the refinery ,that really shook the downtown just one block away.There is still an oil business there.It deeply saddens me to see what has happened to a once flourishing “oil boom” town !

  16. I have a lot of fond memories of this area luv the stories thanks for sharing my time is way after all the stories but good ones God bless

  17. My Dad, Russell Williams built roads for Harold Wisley and John Clough in those fields. We were from Brownstown. That was in early to mid 50’s. He also built roads in the Salem area for D. B. Hayes. He later became Road Comissioner for Otego Township.

  18. I was a welder for Biermans welding in the early 60’s !! Lots of memories of Wrights Corner Smith tool house Williams tool house !! At one time I was told there was two thousand active wells in the Loudon Field !!! While I was in the USAF stationed in TX I met a girl whose family moved to St.Elmo and her Dad worked in the oil patch for a time and then moved back to TX

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