Friday, July 9, 2010

Oil Field Tour With Charlie Fairbank, Fourth-Generation Oil Producer in Oil Springs

Tuesday, July 6th, I had the pleasure of accompanying Charlie Fairbank and his eighteen-year-old son, Charles, for a private tour of his oil land. Charlie Fairbank’s oil fields in Oil Springs are an amazing experience, because the Fairbanks have been producing oil in Oil Springs for almost 150 years (they are celebrating their 150th anniversary in 2011). His great-great-grandfather, J.H. Fairbank, came to Oil Springs during its 1860s boom, and introduced the jerker-line technology that facilitated oil production and would be widely emulated by his peers. Each succeeding generation of Fairbank men has continued to produce oil around Oil Springs, gradually accumulating additional land.

What makes Charlie’s field so amazing is that he continues to produce oil using nineteenth-century technologies. The jerker-lines creak and groan, and the smell of oil permeates the field. A lot of the old wooden structures remain standing, and Charlie acknowledges them with casual, familiar stories. I was surprised to see that portions of Charlie’s land which are not currently useful for producing oil have been converted to crop land, growing beans and alfalfa.

One aspect of the tour I found personally delightful was the herds of sheep that roam the fields. The sheep help to take care of the grass and the weeds in the area. There are llamas that accompany the herds of sheep! Apparently the llamas offer natural production against coyotes. I had the pleasure of spotting three llamas, Ron, Sam and George.

Another aspect of Charlie’s tour that surprised me was his interest in the natural plant life. Not only could he describe the technological aspects of oil production, but he also had a genuine concern and interest in the native plant life, and certain species that were becoming threatened.

A tour high-light was when we trotted past the east gum beds, where the 1860s oil boom really got going when J.M. Williams opened surface wells. This portion of Charlie’s land is situated a fair distance from the Oil Museum of Canada, but Charlie is currently brainstorming ideas about how to attract visitors to the east gum beds, and enhance their interpretive potential. They have played a significant part in the history of oil production in the area, and Charlie would like to see museum visitors have a chance to experience and learn more about them.

It was an excellent opportunity to get an inside perspective not only on the oil industry, but also about the man whose family has been so vital to the history of oil heritage in Lambton County.

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