1901 Oil Boom Brought Dreams Of Wealth

Somerset And Monticello Saw Much Activity From Oil Prospectors

By John D. Wakefield - 1901

To capitalists and prospectors Wayne County, the heart of the new oil district, holds in store numerous novel sights. In order to reach Monticello, from which one must start on the direct road to Sunny Brook, Slickford, and Beaver Creek, it is necessary to drive from Somerset; a distance of 20 miles, or go to Burnside and take an old-fashioned stage coach and travel 22 miles. Within a few miles from Somerset the Cumberland River breaks across the country road, and all vehicles and pedestrians are ferried across from Pulaski into Wayne County. High hills, irregular and rocky, rise from each side of the river. The stream is as clear as a mirror.

The man who runs the ferry is an expert at his business. He is at little expense, for the ferry is not run by machinery or by a rope and pulley. It is manipulated by the one man, who steers it safely across through a swift current by means of a long pole with an iron hook on the end. He fastens the hook in the bottom of the river and by pushing with all his strength manages to guide the boat right. With a less experienced pilot the ferry would be carried down stream and crushed against the shore in the twinkling of an eye.

If the route via Burnside is taken the stage coach will be found waiting at the depot. The coach is drawn by four white horses, and on the side in big letters is the inscription, "Burnside to Monticello."

The stage is known to the inhabitants of Monticello as the "Burnside Express," and its arrival is the principal event in the hum-drum everyday life of the people of the little mountain town.

Charley Burton's Victory

The owner of the stage coach is Charley Burton, one of the most influential and enterprising businessmen of the metropolis of Wayne County. Burton has the unique distinction of carrying Uncle Sam's mail for less money then any other man in the United States. Previous to Mr. McKinley's last election, Mr. Burton got $1,800 every year for carrying the mail between Burnside and Monticello and all intermediate points. Some persons became convinced that Mr. Burton was making too much money, and they were determined to underbid him for the contract. Burton owned two stagecoaches and was experienced in handling the mail, so he made up his mind that he would not be "run out" of the business. When the stagecoach reached Monticello, bringing the newspapers telling of McKinley's re-election, Burton was met by a committee of citizens.

"Look here, Charley," said the spokesman, "you have been carrying this mail long enough, and we are going to underbid you for the next four years' contact. We can run the coach cheaper than you can, and, by George, you might as well quit right now."

"I'm not out of the business yet," replied Burton.

The day came for bidding on the contract and Burton won. Instead of $7,200 for carrying the mail for four years he bid one cent. It was a great victory for Burton, and he and his friends celebrated the day the contract was awarded. The old stage horses were given an extra feed of oats and corn and some of the citizens were invited to take a complimentary trip to Burnside in the "fast express." Burton's rivals were completely outwitted. On account of the contest for the contract, Uncle Sam saves $7,199.99 for the four years for the mail, which is now carried for one-fourth of a cent a year. Burton says he does not mind doing the government the favor of transporting the mail, and the people say the service could not be excelled. Consequently, the only people who have any complaints to make are those who were after the contract and did not get it.

Stage Coach A Money Maker

But, Charley Burton does not lose any money even if he does carry all the mail for a quarter-of-a-cent a year. He carries passengers, and the revenue from that source brings him in a sufficient amount of money to make him one of the most prosperous men of Monticello, and since the "oil boom" started the people of Monticello say Charley Burton "has just been coinin' money." The stage coach starts from Monticello at 7 a. m. Horses are changed at Mill Springs, and it arrives at Burnside at 11 a. m. It gets a load from the noon trains and returns to Monticello, arriving there at 6 p. m. The fare either way is $1.50, and the old coach has been known to carry 24 passengers on one notable trip, just after Bertram Oil Well No. 2 spouted over the derrick. All along the road the farmers, their wives and their children turn out to wave their hands at the driver and to see "who's goin' over to the oil fields."

An Evening In Monticello

The stage coach stops at Monticello in front of the village tavern. Long before 5:00 men and women begin to congregate in front of the "Hotel Ramsey." They are there to get the papers, the mail, and any other packages they may be expecting, but principally for the purpose of getting a good look at the passengers. Between 5:00 and 6:00 the topics of the day are discussed. Politics used to be the subject for conversation, but now it is oil. Everything is oil, and there is not a youngster in the town who cannot talk on this subject with the sang froid of a Beaumont expert.

"Whut's the wells at Sunny Brook doin' today?" asks the leading citizen, as he walks leisurely up the main thoroughfare and takes a seat on the long bench in front of the tavern.

"I hain't heard a word since last night. I did hear, though, that Squire Carter told Jim Thompson that Frank Fisher had seen some Cincinnati and Louisville men down the valley lookin' for some leases. I tell you, this is the comin' country. Why, sir I don't believe that it will be more than ten years at the outside until a railroad is runnin' through these parts just a whizzin'."

"Yes, and if they strike more oil over there at Sunny Brook," speaks up another citizen, "there ain't no tellin' how big this town will get. What kin the oil men do without Monticello? I predict that any young fellow who has ambition to git along in the world could do no better thing than to come right here and settle down."

"By the way," says a man with a slightly red nose, who rises from his seat, "has any licker been brought in here today?"

"White Pup" Irrigant

Monticello is a local option town, and all the "licker" consumer is as clear as spring water. It is a peculiar brand, and is found usually in stumps and most anywhere in the woods where there is a good receptacle for a quarter or a half-dollar.

"White pup" is another name for the "licker," and a good big draught of it will find its way to a man's toes just about as quick as a paralytic stroke.

When the "white pup" is brought in the men are seen to leave one by one for some quiet spot to get a little "snick-er."

"This be purty bracin', stranger," said a mountaineer to the tenderfoot. "If yer hain't used to drinkin' then it might be jest as well or better fer yer to pour in a few drops of water and then dump in a little sweetin' on top. It won't hurt yer, this mountain licker is pure. It hain't like them mix-ups yer git in fancy barrooms in Somerset and Lexington."

Suddenly, a rumble is heard to the east, followed by the sharp crack of a whip, and the stagecoach, loaded down with prospectors, comes rolling over the hill. The men and women then crowd into the road. The driver springs from his seat, and the passengers tumble out like bees from a hive.

A child runs out into the yard and pulls a rope. The supper bell rings and all the dogs in the town set up an accompanying howl that is mournful enough. After supper oil is talked for awhile, and then everyone goes to bed. For some weeks there has been a rush on the tavern and four and five persons are required to sleep in one room. But, the air is cold after the sun sets; there is no whirr of an automobile or the whiz of an electric car, so Monticello is a capital place to rest.

About The Town Of Monticello

Monticello is a little bit of a place crowded down in the mountains, which completely encircle it. It has a hotel, a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, a barbershop, six or seven stores, a bank, a post office, and a courthouse. Everybody in the town holds one or more leases on good oil ground, which they might be willing to get rid of at a good figure.

One disappointing feature about Monticello is that there is no meat shops in the town. On account of the out-of-the-way location of the place the people never get fresh meat. The menu everywhere is made up principally of bacon and eggs three times a day.

Has A Political Boss

A unique figure in Monticello is "Boss" Shepard. He is now 90-odd years old and says he has quit politics for good. Mr. Shepard is a Jeffersonian Democrat of the old school and is probably one of the best-posted men in the entire county. He was formerly the Democratic leader of that section, but his old age has put him out of the business.

In "Boss" Shepard's best days Wayne County never went Republican, and he was one of the chief beneficiaries of the long list of Democratic victories. At one time, it is said that he held six county offices. The people did not object, for he knew how to look after the county's interests and, of course, the "Boss" did not object. Mr. Shepard was never a boss in the commonly accepted meaning of the term. What bossing he did lay in the people's desire to do what he wanted them to do. By the way, Wayne County is the only county in the 11th district that is Democratic, and "Boss" Shepard says the Democrats of the state who put it into the 11th owe the people of Wayne County satisfaction for the outrage.

Trip To The Oil Fields

The Beam Creek oil country is 12 miles from Monticello; Slickford, 16 miles; Sunny Brook, 20 miles; and Spurrier, Tennessee, about 40 miles. In order to reach these places it is necessary to go over the mountain roads. They are filled with ledges of rock and are not even level in spots.

When the start is made from Monticello one is told that the distance to Sunny Brook is 20 miles, but the further one travels the further away Sunny Brook gets. In fact, the mountaineers are so accustomed to climbing over the hills that they pay little attention to distances, and, after the traveler has gone five miles, they tell him "They 'low it is about 22 miles to Sunny Brook."

In order to get safely over some of the mountaintops it is necessary to get out of the vehicle and lead the horse by the bridle. Some of the hills have an incline of 50% and 60%, but the roads for the most part wind around the mountains. In this way the distances increase at a rapid rate. If one is unable to make the trip in one day and visit the oil wells en route he will be obliged to apply at a mountain cabin for shelter overnight. There are few boarding houses in the mountains, one-room log cabins being the favored style of domicile. A cabin frequently accommodates a man, his wife, and their eight or ten children. If a stranger remains overnight a sheet or comfort is stretched across the narrow room in order to make the apartment a trifle more private. The mountaineer has little, but what he has is free to the stranger. Old-fashioned spinning wheels are running in nearly every cabin.

The razor-backed hogs are marked and are turned loose in the hills to roam about and get their living as best they can. They are turned out in October and are left to root for themselves until January or February. The corn is grown on the mountain sides and is ground in old-fashioned mills run by water power from the creeks.

"Whar Be Louisville?"

There are some mountaineers in the oil district who have never seen a railroad train and have never been as far away from home as Monticello. One old woman, 107 years old, who lives alone in a cabin near Sunny Brook, has spent all her life in the little valley, never having been across the mountain to the northeast to the Slickford post office.

One prospector from Louisville who stayed all night at a mountain cabin was asked by the host where Louisville was.

"Hain't it over near Somerset?" he asked.

"It's further north than Somerset," replied the prospector.

"Well, I jest 'lowed it was over in that direction," responded the mountaineer, deeply interested.

Slickford And Sunny Brook

Slickford is nothing more than a country store and post office on the banks of a creek at the foot of a high mountain. Here, the oil men congregate and talk with the farmers about leasing the ground. Across the mountain, in the valley, is Sunny Brook. Here, are Sam Marsh's store, the mecca of oil men; the post office; a blacksmith shop; and an old schoolhouse. Just below Marsh's store is the oil well now being drilled by the Sun Oil and Gas Company. Right above it on Carpenter's Fork are the two wells of the Somerset Oil Company and Joe Bertram's boardinghouse, where all the oil men stop. Bertram has an organ in his house, and he is envied by hundreds of people in the valley.

Slickford and Sunny Brook get one mail each day. It is brought by a mounted carrier, who rides from Monticello to Sunny Brook. There, he unloads his sack and rides back to Monticello by the way of Slickford, leaving the daily mail there. The rider gets 58 cents a day for his work and does not complain of what he has to do. He rides about 40 miles every day, but he goes in a gallop and says he does not mind the distance.

The Mountaineer's Dream

"I had a dream the other night," said an old mountaineer who was at work on one of the oil wells in the Sunny Brook district. "Hit was a funny dream. I jest saw derricks all up through this valley. There wuz no less than 100 riggin's up, and every well was pumpin' 1,000 barrels a day. I could see the oil runnin' into a tank by the side of every well. Runnin' from the oil tank was a pipe connected with a second tank, and in there was gold. I thought the oil was bein' changed in the pipes, and the money was layin' around loose on the ground. I dreamed that Sunny Brook was a town the size of Somerset, and Monticello was as big as Louisville, with smooth streets and cars that run without horses or mules. I dreamed a train was runnin' down through the valley with cars lined with plush that you could git onto and go to New York if yer keered to go that far. I thought I had a keerage that would run without horses, and I would go by the wells and pick up money.

"That's as far as I got, but I tell yer fellers now that hit wouldn't surprise me much if I would live to see that dream work out. Maybe money won't run out of oil wells, but Sunny Brook is growin' already, and talk of the railroad is common.

"If I can sell some of my land for as much as $3 to $3.50 an acre, I'd git up a company and try to build that road. Nobody knows these hollers better'n I do, and I can pick out the level places. But, the old women don't take much stock in these fellers some calls magnates. She 'lows I'd best jest stay like I am now and be plain and sensible like."

Home | Story | Things | Contents | Index | Samples | Genealogy
Features | Books | Historical Societies | Sale | Links