Petro­lia Proud

And rightly so, given the town’s unique his­tory and con­tri­bu­tions to the growth of our na­tion

More of Our Canada - - My Hometown - by Betty Ann Pope­lier, Oil Springs, Ont.

As a child, I was a lit­tle ashamed of my home­town. Rel­a­tives and other vis­i­tors al­most al­ways made snide re­marks about the dis­tinct odour that would en­velop them as they ap­proached the out­skirts of town. Liv­ing there on a daily ba­sis made res­i­dents im­mune to the smell, and, in fact, un­less pointed out to me, I never no­ticed the aroma. Not un­til I was a grown woman and work­ing in the tourism in­dus­try did I re­al­ize the sig­nif­i­cance of that smell to the town, and, in­deed, to the en­tire world. This is where the Cana­dian oil in­dus­try orig­i­nated, grow­ing from its fledg­ing roots in nearby Oil Springs to lo­cal fruition in Petro­lia (known for a lit­tle while as Petrolea).

The “black gold” that those first tena­cious pioneer drillers pumped out of the ground in the 1860s was the foun­da­tion on which our lit­tle town was built. In­cor­po­rated in 1874, by the 1880s, with a pop­u­la­tion of 5,000, Petro­lia was one of the rich­est towns per capita in Canada. All be­cause of a foul-smelling, gooey sub­stance ex­tracted from the ground that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize the world and bring about changes never be­fore imag­ined.

The his­tory of Petro­lia re­minds me that fact is al­most al­ways more fas­ci­nat­ing than fic­tion. Many in­trigu­ing sto­ries and books have been writ­ten about Cana­dian oil barons and our sought-after “for­eign drillers”—those brave, ad­ven­tur­ous in­di­vid­u­als who took with them to the far cor­ners of the globe their hard-earned in­dus­try ex­per­tise and knowl­edge, and as­sisted in the de­vel­op­ment of ma­jor oil­fields around the world.

Past op­u­lence from by­gone days can be seen while driv­ing or tak­ing a leisurely walk through town. Take a stroll through Cres­cent Park, and as you gaze at the el­e­gant homes, pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the street signs, as there is a story hid­den be­hind each and ev­ery one. For in­stance, stop at the top of the hill on Tank Street and be awed by the spec­tac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture of the Fair­bank House, its beauty now sadly di­min­ished but res­o­lutely shining through. On King Street sits Nemo Hall, another ar­chi­tec­tural beauty, thank­fully re­stored and nur­tured.

A few his­tor­i­cal in­dus­trial build­ings also re­main in­tact. As they have for al­most a cen­tury, Van Tuyl and Fair­bank Heavy Hard­ware, Baines’ Ma­chine Shop, and the Oil Well Sup­ply Com­pany con­tinue to pro­vide the tools and ma­te­ri­als re­quired to ser­vice the

many oil wells in the area that are still pump­ing and pro­duc­ing the pre­cious com­mod­ity. Be­cause of the per­se­ver­ance of a hand­ful of de­ter­mined busi­ness­men in the early days, a spur line was built, en­abling them to trans­port their bounty by rail. The for­mer train sta­tion has been con­verted into our present-day li­brary, a unique struc­ture in it­self.

The story be­hind the con­struc­tion of the Char­lotte Eleanor En­gle­hart Hospi­tal is a tale of pro­found de­vo­tion and love. Ac­cord­ing to the Lambton County Mu­se­ums web­site, Char­lotte was born in Oc­to­ber 27, 1863, and moved to Petro­lia at age ten to live with her sis­ter and brother-in­law. In De­cem­ber 1891, she mar­ried Ja­cob (Jake) Lewis En­gle­hart and moved into her pres­ti­gious new home. She passed away at age 45 on De­cem­ber 31, 1908, hav­ing stip­u­lated be­fore­hand that, fol­low­ing the demise of her hus­band, her home and ex­ten- sive sur­round­ing prop­erty should be de­voted to the es­tab­lish­ment of a hospi­tal. In 1911, Jake de­cided to give up the prop­erty while still alive, so that Petro­lia would have the hospi­tal it so badly needed. It con­tin­ues to serve the com­mu­nity to this day.

In the heart of town stands another jewel, Vic­to­ria Hall—a dis­tin­guished tes­ta­ment to our past as well as our present. As ex­plained on the town’s web­site and else­where, this fine ex­am­ple of the Queen Anne style of ar­chi­tec­ture, de­signed by noted ar­chi­tect Ge­orge F. Du­rand, is now a na­tional his­toric site, a provin­cially des­ig­nated her­itage build­ing and a cul­tural cen­tre for Lambton County.

Th­ese are but a few of the amaz­ing struc­tures built in a time of wealth and glory. Fas­ci­nat­ing me­mories are hid­den within the walls of each and ev­ery one and, if re­ports are to be be­lieved, a ghost or two from by­gone days may linger on in some of them.

Com­ple­ment­ing our many his­tor­i­cal build­ings is a func­tional 19th-cen­tury oil­field, the Petro­lia Dis­cov­ery, which is ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing our oil her­itage. Within its gates orig­i­nal wooden pump­jacks, three-pole der­ricks, a large bull wheel and jerker line sys­tem are still be­ing used to ex­tract oil from the ground. Cur­rently be­ing re­stored, Petro­lia Dis­cov­ery will soon re­open to the pub­lic, so cu­ri­ous vis­i­tors will once again be able to step back in time.

The present at­mos­phere of the town is invit­ing, friendly and en­thu­si­as­tic. Walk­ing tours, vis­i­tors guides, a va­ri­ety of restau­rants, unique stores and bou­tiques, pro­fes­sional sum­mer theatre and spe­cial events through­out the year make it a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for many.

No longer ashamed, I now beam with pride when I think of my home­town. As our new slo­gan states, “You’ll Be Sur­prised!” ■

Old-time der­ricks at work in Petro­lia, once known as Petrolea.

Top: The Fair­bank House still ex­udes ar­chi­tec­tural beauty. Above: Vic­to­ria Hall, another source of com­mu­nity pride.

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