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Bridge Champ had Ties to Oil

Feb 01, 2008 | Posted in Essays, People

As oil fever spread across the United States and into other countries it wasn’t unusual for workers from here to be recruited for jobs in faraway places. In the late 1870s Oil Well Supply Company in Oil City was asked to find six experienced Pennsylvania oil men to work in the Baku region of Russia. They were guaranteed first class passage and $120 a month.

One of the recruits was Almon Elias Culbertson of Franklin, known as “Chubb.” In addition to his skills as a mining engineer he was a bit of a dandy, a fiddler, a boxer and former state walking and bicycle champion. The crew arrived in Russia in 1880 and went to the estate of a retired Russian general and Cossack chief, General Illya Rogozny. Almon Culbertson worked to train Russians as oil field machinists, mechanics, carpenters and drillers.

He also met the general’s family, including Xenia, 26, a widow whose husband had been killed in the Turkish war. As plans for marriage loomed, the former Franklinite refused to become an honorary Cossack or a Russian subject and Xenia’s family made plans for her to wed a man of their choosing. Not to be stopped, the young lovers fled on horseback, riding hard all night to be married by a Russian parish priest.

The marriage was a happy one and in the 1890s Almon Culbertson went with a British oil company to Rumania where they lived in the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. Their son, Eugene, was joined there by two younger brothers, Illya (Ely), born July 22, 1891, and Alexande (Sasha), born two years later.

In 1897, Almon Culbertson decided to bring his family to the United States and to educate his sons here. After a brief stop in Philadelphia they came to Franklin where his father, stepmother, sister and two half-brothers were living. In his autobiography, Ely Culbertson recalled: “It was a regular Cossack invasion of the little town, what with three little Cossacks and the daughter of a Cossack General, to say nothing of such items as thick Russian pillows and a huge samovar.”

He noted his father was “welcomed with sincere warmth. His adventures in faraway lands were a topic of conversation for he was a hometown boy who had made good.” But soon the relationship was exhausted and he no longer fit into the family circle. Within a month he welcomed a cable confirming his appointment as chief engineer of a petroleum company in Grozny and in 1898 they left Franklin and sailed for the Caucasus. Later he struck it rich in one of the biggest oil fields in the Russian empire. This made possible an early retirement to devote more time to Sasha, who went to the conservatory to study and later became a famous concert violinist.

Eugene and Ely came back to this country to study and the latter was introduced to the game of bridge, which he initially referred to as a “stupid game.” But he perfected his skill and by 1934 Ely Culbertson had a worldwide organization with daily bridge articles running in American and foreign newspapers. The Culbertson system was widely known and Ely and his wife Jo were recognized as the greatest auction and contract bridge players in the country.

Carolee Mitchner 2008