It took awhile, but the 1957 well drilled on Mrs. Houseknecht’s dairy farm found a giant oilfield.
In early January 1957, an exploratory well drilled on and off for almost two years revealed a giant oilfield in southern Michigan. The discovery at “Rattlesnake Gulch” on the dairy farm of Ferne Houseknecht discovered a prolific petroleum basin that extended 29 miles.
The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield is the stuff of dreams, according to Michigan historian and author Jack R. Westbrook. The state’s first oilfield, the Saginaw field, was found in 1925, but it would be years before Mrs. Houseknecht historic discovery arrived.
After hundreds of unsuccessful exploratory wells holes or a few small oil discoveries throughout the state, on January 7, 1957, the Houseknecht No. 1 well uncovered a massive oil and natural gas basin. Drilling the wildcat well took about 20 months to discover Michigan’s largest oilfield — the “Golden Gulch” Albion-Pulaski-Scipio field.
The 3,576-foot-deep well near Scipio Township in Hillsdale County in southwestern Michigan produced from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone. According to Westbrook, Mrs. Houseknect had spent months convincing her uncle Clifford Perry to help drill a well one joint of pipe at a time between other farm projects.
“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams and of oilfield legends,” explained Westbrook, retired managing editor of the Michigan Oil & Gas News.
“One version of the legend says that a fortune teller told young Ferne Houseknect that a ‘black river of oil’ lay beneath her property in Hillsdale County,” Westbrook noted. “Another version of the story says that the Houseknects were taking a cow to be bred and on the way drove past a drilling rig where Perry was working and from their conversation a deal was struck.”
Drilling began in May 1954, but it took a lot of time to drill — often with entire months off between work, reported Westbrook, who added the exploratory attempt receive little or no encouragement from state geologists and other petroleum industry experts. The venture’s limited financial support came from Houseknecht family and friends.
Following its discovery, the giant oilfield became known as the Michigan’s golden gulch of oil — and “foster a boom on a discovery-hungry petroleum industry to end a 15 year major discovery drought in Michigan,” noted Westbrook, author of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35 year Michigan investment heritage in Michigan’s public recreation future.
Ferne Houseknecht’s wildcat well triggered a drilling boom that resulted in 734 wells producing more than 150 million barrels of oil and almost a quarter-trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the Albion-Scipio field in the southern Michigan basin. The formation represented a classic example of the region’s “fracture-controlled dolomite reservoir,” according to petroleum geologists.
As the 21st century began, Michigan’s oil and natural gas companies, armed with new detection and completion technology, returned to the Albion-Scipio area. Beginning 2006, increased statewide production reversed a 25 year downward trend in annual oil output and an eight-year decline in natural gas production.
The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, created in the 1970s as an alliance of industry, government, and environmental groups, set an example for other producing states, according to Westbrook.
By 2010, Michigan produced over 1.25 billion barrels of oil and more than seven trillion feet of natural gas since the discovery of the . The state’s petroleum industry in 2010 had more than 14,000 producing wells. Of the new wells drilled that year, 116 wells were for development of proven reserves and 55 wells were exploratory — with 30 of those unsuccessful.
The Michigan Petroleum History exhibit at Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library in Mount Pleasant described the early days of Michigan’s petroleum history with illustrated with examples from the library’s extensive holdings. The Michigan Oil And Gas Association, established in 1934, today represents companies active in oil and natural gas production.
Historian Jack R. Westbrook authored At Home in Earlier Mt. Pleasant, Michigan: A visit with our neighbors of the past and three other books about Michigan history. In 2009, he co-authored with Mr. C. John Miller Anointed with Oil: My journey with faith from the oilfields of Michigan to the legislative halls of Washington DC…and back again.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Michigan’s Golden Gulch of Oil.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/michigan-oil-and-gas. Last Updated: January 3, 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2014.