Jeffersontown’s 1920s “Oil Boom”
Writer / Beth Wilder, Director, Jeffersontown Historical Museum
Almost 100 years ago, Jeffersontown experienced something quite unexpected – an oil boom. Of course, no one thinks of oil rigs when they think of Jeffersontown. There is a good reason for that, and a rather amusing story behind it all.
Jeffersontown once had a community well at the corner of Watterson Trail and Taylorsville Road, located under the right turn lane near the current location of the Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce. The well had been dug in 1817 at a cost of $50, levied from the town’s first property taxes. In 1824 a bucket, bail and chain were purchased for the well, and a roof was added to keep children from falling into it. By 1914, the health board had condemned the town’s water wells as unsanitary, so they mainly served to provide water for uses other than drinking.
Varying legends exist regarding how the oil was first discovered. Mildred Anderson, the granddaughter of Dr. Wells, who owned a pharmacy at the corner where El Nopal restaurant now stands, was twelve years old at the time of the oil boom, and she recalled Mrs. L.A. Blankenbaker detecting the scent of oil as she passed by the town well one day. Most other accounts, however, suggest that in 1920, a car passing through town had overheated and stopped at the well for water to pour into the radiator. When the water was brought up from the well, the scent of gasoline was so noticeable that the owner of the car decided to put some in his gas tank. Sure enough, the car ran just fine from whatever happened to be in the well.
Most of the townspeople became extremely excited at the thought that they had struck oil, although a few levelheaded people tried to explain that it was not oil but gasoline they were smelling, and that gasoline had to be refined from oil. Chances are that it was coming from a leaking gas tank nearby. Logic did not prevail, however, and the boom was on.
Several local men leased the town well, formed an oil company and began selling stock. These same men – John E. Anderson, G.A. Simpson, Dr. J.R. Shacklett, and Louis C. Coe – enclosed the well with a rectangular fence and put a tent atop it, then they took turns staying with the well and pumping gas from it. The product of the well was then transported across the street to the garage of Louis Coe, where it was sold to the public for 25 cents per gallon.
Then things really got crazy. People came from all over the county to see Jeffersontown’s well. Local residents not only started drilling for oil on their own properties, but prospectors also began rushing into town, offering to buy or lease land so they could drill for oil. The drilling lasted for about a year, and some oil was found in 1922, but the more practical townsfolk still insisted that there was a big difference between oil and refined gasoline, and that the town well was actually filled with gas leaking from the tanks of Chester and George Bowles’ filling station on the opposite corner of the town square. In fact, town trustees were so sure of this that they started legal proceedings against the station, but an inspection found no leaks. The trustees also placed a ban on blasting, as several residents shook the rural calm of the town with dynamite when they attempted to locate oil on their properties.
During this time, another major event was taking place in Jeffersontown. Joseph Ellingsworth, who had complained to neighbors and the city about one year earlier that a foul odor was coming from his own well, embarked on a campaign to dissolve the town charter, citing high taxes and lack of public service. He got quite a number of residents to go along with him and sign his petition, especially those who were sure they were about to strike it rich, but others in the town vehemently disagreed, believing that Jeffersontown offered superior services for the taxes that were paid, and that it should keep its charter.
By the summer of 1921, however, those who desired to retain the town charter claimed the oil had become a major funding source for the city. Thousands of gallons of gasoline were sold, people bought stocks in Jeffersontown, and a big oil well was installed using the capital from selling those stocks. Many residents thought Jeffersontown was on its way to being an oil-boom town, and that there would be no more taxes – in fact, they believed Jeffersontown would soon be sending out dividend checks to all the residents with money raised from the town’s oil leases. Soon, residents started removing their names from the petition to dissolve the town charter, claiming they were unaware of what they originally signed.
About this same time, the gasoline supply in the town well began to dwindle. Those who still hoped to strike it rich tried to explain it away by saying that all the blasting in town was simply diverting the oil to other spots, but eventually, even the more naïve residents in town began to come to the realization that they had not struck oil – there really was gasoline leaking from somewhere in the town. Soon it was discovered that the storage tanks under Chester and George Bowles’ filling station had been leaking gasoline after all, and the oil company folded and returned most of the money to its stockholders.
The oil boom fizzled out, and Jeffersontown kept its charter. The excitement that had overtaken the town for a couple of years dwindled back into the sleepy, pastoral comfort that would remain a staple of the town until the 1960s ushered in a new form of enthusiasm in Jeffersontown, with the creation of the Bluegrass Industrial Park – but that’s another story.