Oil Hill: Buy In

On October 5, 1915, oil exploration activities led for the first time by a team of geologists resulted in a strike of major proportions.

PHOTO/ Kansas Oil Museum and Warren Martin

Oil Hill today is marked by the newly installed historical sign.

On October 5, 1915, oil exploration activities led for the first time by a team of geologists resulted in a strike of major proportions. Stapleton #1 opened the door that would transform El Dorado from a traditional agricultural community into a burgeoning boom town. It would also establish new communities in the region solely dedicated to the oil industry. Chief among those new communities was Oil Hill.

Cities Service Oil Company built the town of Oil Hill (covering approximately 64 acres) on leased land. It was located just northwest of the present city of El Dorado. Oil Hill was complete with swimming pool, golf course, school, gymnasium, baseball field, and many other luxuries all for Cities Service company employees.

The population of Oil Hill grew almost overnight to approximately 2,500 people and soon became the largest town completely owned by a single company in the entire world. At one point there was some trepidation among the citizens of El Dorado that Oil Hill would become the dominate community in the region. However, this was not to be. Today, the only remains of the community is a newly installed sign in front of the Vess Oil Company offices and a few broken sidewalks and foundations.

Oil Hill was an inevitable victim of the “boom” culture. Booms had been a staple in turn of the century American culture. Mining booms and oil booms dotted the history of the expansion into the West. In fact, even during the boom, many in El Dorado were not merely concerned with the future these new start up company towns, but were also concerned with the future of their own city.

In a publication produced by the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce in September of 1918, there was an extensive article titled “Facts and Figures Show El Dorado’s Oil Boom is to Go On ‘Forever and Ever’”. This publication detailed a then and now snapshot, stating the population of El Dorado in 1914 was 2,500 and had swelled to 18,500 in 1918. It then went on to state the reasons why this boom would be a permanent expansion of El Dorado. The common theme among many of these reasons was “buy in.”

Some of the reasons stated: “The population has grown from 3,500 [in 1915] to 18,500 in three years. A thousand new homes are being built in El Dorado today. Renters are buying homes.” “Our millionaires are investing their wealth in El Dorado industries, securities and real estate.” That is buy in — it is a long-term investment in the community.

Oil Hill did not have that level of buy in. In fact, all of the investment in the community was a short-term investment. Ownership of the land remained with the original farmers and ranchers. The company leased the land from the them. The company owned the houses and facilities and only leased them to workers. No one had a long-term staked interest in the community. There was no buy in.

Consequently, when the boom subsided, there was nothing that kept the workers from moving on to the next oil field. The leases on their houses expired. The swimming pool and other facilities were closed. The buildings themselves, in many cases, were literally loaded on to trailers and hauled off to another location. What remains of Oil Hill is only the location, a sign and the evidence of the 64 wells drilled.

There is an important lesson that museums (and all non-profits, churches and charitable organizations) can learn from the history of Oil Hill: buy in is essential to long-term sustainability.

We all have a tendency to be program oriented. Sometimes we even perform extraordinarily well in our programming. We make a public relations splash that draws attention far and wide. A year later we are right back to square one struggling to secure financial feasibility.

Buy in is a necessity for any museum or organization seeking to make a long-term impact in the fulfillment of its mission. We must constantly evaluate our efforts to make sure we are effectively communicating WHY we are doing WHAT we are doing.

On the other side of the coin, as individuals, we should take some time to evaluate why we are a part of organizations? Do we really understand the mission of the organization? Are we buying in to the mission, or are we just leasing it for a time?

The Kansas Oil Museum is dedicated to making an educational investment in the lives of others. We invite you to join us in this effort. It is vital for the future of our nation to invest in educational programming built on the solid foundation of history.

© 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.