Plains Folk

A Dry Hole in North Dakota


Given the virtually perfect success rate for wells drilled in the Bakken today, it is easy to forget the number of dry holes punched in the northern prairie over the past century. The biggest one, says the petroleum industry’s first academic chronicler in North Dakota, is historical. Clarence A. Herz entitles the initial chapter of his master’s thesis, “A Dry Hole,” and recounts that while there has been quite a bit of popular writing on the discovery of oil in the Flickertail State, the subject to date has been untouched by scholarly historians.


There are plenty of good stories to be told about early petroleum exploration in North Dakota, such as that of the infamous Townley well near Robinson in 1926. By this time Arthur C. Townley was famous or notorious, depending on who you ask, as the founder of the Nonpartisan League. Petroleum exploration was another enterprise that gave play to Townley’s promotional talents.


Townley heard of a water well near Robinson that reportedly had produced gas, and so he traveled to the locality and set up an oil camp in 1926. In a series of public meetings he waxed evangelical in his appeals for cash and secured enough to begin drilling operations.


Townley’s pitch to the public incorporated the artful deployment of a doodlebugger—sort of like a water witch, only the guy said he could divine oil, not water—a doodlebugger who manipulated some sort of “scientific instrument.”


Of course, there was no oil, and so Townley salted the well. He showed off a bottle of crude, put oil down the hole with the mud, paid local fellows to motor out to the site and see it, and thereby attracted thousands of people to his location. Soon after this he pulled out, moving on to other schemes.


The Townley well showcases local color in the early petroleum scene, but it also illustrates an important theme in petroleum history on the northern plains. As Clarence explains, until the late 1930s, while petroleum development was rampant on the southern plains, it stalled in the north, for a variety of reasons. There were technical problems having to do with mud and brine in the hole, but more fundamentally, there were the obvious disadvantages of drilling in a remote place subject to meteorological tyranny.


This began to change in the late 1930s, a situation that I think had something to do with the implementation of New Deal petroleum policy, which set oil companies in search of new fields of development. What stands out in North Dakota during this time, however, was the visionary entrepreneurship of Thomas Witt Leach.


Leach’s efforts to develop petroleum in North Dakota were interrupted by his service in the Second World War, but otherwise he was tireless in the cause. His work finally bore sweet fruit when Amerada Petroleum Corporation brought in Clarence Iverson #1 in 1951.


Given the rapid rise of the petroleum industry in North Dakota, this enterprise needs a sound, constructive history done by a scholarly historian, establishing the industry and its people as integral to this place. I think the petroleum industry has found it historian in Clarence Herz.


Don’t you be salting the well on us now, Clarence. We’re counting on you to make us whole, historically, by bringing what soon will be our largest industry into the main stream of our state story.

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