This Week In Illinois History: The Illinois Oil Boom Begins (Jan. 27, 1937)

Jan 25, 2021

An oil field worker in Marion County, 1940.
Credit Library of Congress (LC-DIG-fsa-8a13112)

They call it black gold. Texas tea. But Texas wasn’t the only state to dominate America’s oil industry. Illinois was once one of the highest oil-producing states in the country, and, for a time, the world.

Oil speculators looked to Illinois as early as the 1860s and found some success in the early 1900s. But the real boom began Jan. 27, 1937, when the Adams Oil and Gas company struck oil on Glenn Merryman’s farm in Marion County, setting off a southern Illinois oil boom that lasted half a century.

A month later, 50 miles to the east, the Pure Oil Company struck gold on Eugene Weiler’s farm in Clay County. This was just the start of a boom that centered in Marion, Richland, Clay, and Fayette counties. Southern Illinois was soon invaded by oil companies, independent speculators and men just looking for work. The Decatur Daily Review called it a “New Heyday in Little Egypt.”

By Aug. 1, villages across multiple counties were clogged with oil derricks. Three-fourths of the land was under lease by oil companies. Populations doubled. So did the number of businesses.

By the end of 1937, there were 200 new producing wells in Illinois: 85 in Marion County, with 18 of them on the Merryman Farm. Illinois had nearly tripled its oil output and had moved up to 11th among the country’s 18 oil-producing states.

By 1940, it was number three. That year, the state produced nearly 150 million barrels of oil, more than any other nation except for Russia and Venezuela.

Illinois’s oil sector remained a strong economic and industrial force for the next 50 years. In the mid-1980s, however, it began a slow, steady decline. But it is not gone. Illinois still pumps the bubblin’ crude, about 9 million barrels a year. It also serves a key role in the country's oil infrastructure.

Just a few miles north of the original strike site -- the former farm of Glenn Merryman -- sits the Patoka Tank Farm, a major hub for the storage and transport of oil. The site moves millions of barrels of oil each year, and is the endpoint of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

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