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CRYSTAL OIL WORKS

Sep 10, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Places

CRYSTAL OIL WORKS (THOMAS WRIGHT, JAMES FAWCETT, EDWIN V.D. SELDEN, AND WALTER CUBBON), ROUSEVILLE (CORNPLANTER TOWNSHIP), VENANGO COUNTY, PA
David L. Weber, 2008

“The Crystal Oil Works are owned by J.W. Fawcett and E.V.D. Selden. The daily capacity of this refinery is nine hundred barrels, and a force of thirty - three employees is kept busy. It manufactures a high - grade automobile oil, illuminating oil [kerosene], gasoline, neutral waxes, and all the other products of high - grade Pennsylvania oil. The excellence of the output is conceded. The name of this refinery may well be taken as an indication of the merit of its products.” - Charles A. Babcock, Venango County, Pennsylvania - Her Pioneers And People (1919) Vol. I, Pages 169 - 170

Thomas F. Wright established the Crystal Oil Works at Rouseville, May, 1887. John and James Fawcett (father and son), of Cleveland, OH, acquired stock in the new refinery. The Fawcetts bought the plant outright when Thomas Wright’s health failed, 1896 - 1897.

John Fawcett was a brother of James A. Fawcett, a partner in one of Venango County’s earliest oil refineries, 1861. The Fawcett family also owned a Cleveland refinery.

James A. Fawcett (younger) came to Rouseville and Oil City as manager of the Crystal Oil Works, 1890. He bought out his father’s interest and sold his connection in the Cleveland operation, 1904.

Col. Edwin Van Duesen Selden purchased an interest in the Crystal Oil Works, 1897, and subsequently became James Fawcett’s equal partner, 1906.

Colonel Selden, a Pittsburgh native, began his career as an oil producer at Parker (Parkers Landing), PA, c. 1876. He followed his brothers, Connor and Arthur Selden, to Oil City and became a broker on (and subsequently President of) the Oil City Oil Exchange.

Joseph Riesenman, quoting an earlier biographer, recounted E.V.D. Selden’s connection with petroleum speculation, 1943:

“Colonel Selden quickly found his place in this seething whirl of competition…. For a score of years he was a notable figure on the [Oil Exchange] floor. One of the first of the petroleum brokers to grasp the fact that speculation in certificates had had its day, Colonel Selden withdrew from that line of endeavor and thereafter devoted himself chiefly to the refining of Pennsylvania oil.”

Selden was an officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard, hence his title. He commanded the 21st Infantry Regiment, 1898. Later he served as a Staff Officer under Major - General Charles Miller (Galena - Signal Oil Company, General Manifold & Printing Company, Colburn Machine Tool Company, Franklin Air Compressor Works / Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company, Grant Tool Works, Franklin Rolling Mill & Foundry Company, Franklin Steel Casting Works / American Steel Foundries, Franklin Manufacturing Company, Venango Manufacturing Company, Franklin Railway Oil Company, etc.).

Col. E.V.D. Selden was one of the founding member of Oil City’s Ivy Club, 1878 - 1879. A 1946 Derrick interview with Selden recalled the club’s origins and mission:

“The [Ivy] club was organized as a gentlemen’s association with a social life of high ideals. Liquors, gambling or anything unworthy a place in homes of refinement were excluded.

“A library, piano, card, and billiard tables were provided. A well equipped gymnasium served as a valuable aid to the rest and recreation needed by men whose business confined them to offices and whose duties and responsibilities made relaxation of some sort a vital necessity.”

The Selden - Fawcett partnership made possible the Crystal refinery’s expansion. Charles A. Babcock wrote the following about Crystal’s growth, 1919:

“The plant has been gradually increased to a capacity of one thousand barrels of crude oil daily and the necessary machinery installed for the manufacture of wax as well as the numerous other by - products which science has taught the refiners to obtain. The company has catered especially to [the] railroad trade, being one of the largest independent distributors of oils particularly adapted for such use, and enjoys a large foreign patronage, the output going to practically every civilized land on the globe. The plant now covers eight acres of ground, and holds an important place in the prosperity of Oil City, giving profitable employment to forty - two men constantly. The company owns fifty tank cars, which are kept in regular service distributing the product.”

Fawcett and Selden were also shareholders in the Pure Oil Company, United States Pipe Line Company (a Pure Oil affiliate) and the Alum Rock Gas Company. They were also active members of the National Petroleum Refiners’ Association and the Oil City and Titusville Refiners’ Association (James Fawcett was secretary of the latter organization).

Edwin Van Duesen Selden was married to Cornelia F. Earp, sister of Oil City lumber dealer John K. Earp.
The New York Industrial Recorder carried this description of the Earp & Kelley Lumber Company, 1904:

“One of the leading representative concerns engaged in the lumber business and one which controls a most extensive trade is the Earp & Kelley Lumber Company which is composed of Mr. John K. Earp and Mr. James B. Kelley. This sterling concern was started about five years ago and quickly grew to be one of the largest of its kind in this [part of the] country. They deal at both wholesale and retail in lumber, sash, doors, blinds, glass, lath, shingles and all kinds of builders’ supplies, their trade extending throughout Oil City and vicinity. They own large yards at No. 275 Elm Street, bounded in the rear by the railroad, from which switches extend to all parts of the plant. Big storehouses and sheds are filled with seasoned lumber of choicely selected stock, all of which is kept under cover, and a complete line of all [building] material handled. Messrs. Earp & Kelley are natives of this State. They are also interested in oil and gas and own a number of valuable holdings.”

Col. E.V.D. Selden likely gave John Earp financial backing (and was a silent partner) in the wholesale / retail lumber business. Earp, Kelley & Selden owned an oil lease along Route 8, in Cherrytree Township, Venango County. Fire damaged this property’s air drive secondary recovery plant, according to The Titusville Herald, August 6, 1930:

“Fire of mysterious origin totally destroyed the air plant on the lease owned by Erb & Kelly [sic.] of Oil City, and located on the D.M. Marsh farm, along McKinney Road about five miles south of Titusville, at about 10 o’clock Tuesday forenoon. The machinery in the plant was quite valuable and the losses will be several thousands of dollars, it was said.

“…. The plant was installed about 12 years ago and the original machinery had been replaced with the most approved types for use in an air plant, so that the building as well as its equipment were of the best in the local oil fields. It was said last evening that the plant will probably be rebuilt.”

Although not mentioned in this 1930 article, E.V.D. Selden was one of the owners / partners. Earp, Kelley & Selden rebuilt / repaired their Cherrytree lease’s compressor house within a short time.

Edwin V.D. Selden was also president of the Venango Security, Building & Loan Association; and chief executive officer of the Home Savings & Loan Association. His oil and gas lease holdings, including those owned in partnership with Earp & Kelley, were numerous.

James A. Fawcett once served in a Cleveland unit of the Ohio National Guard. During World War I he was in the United States Army, with the rank of major.
Fawcett was elected Mayor (Democrat) of Oil City, 1895, serving a three - year term. Charles A. Babcock highlighted James Fawcett’s achievements in office:

“It was during his term that the excellent water system which the city now enjoys was installed, as well as the electric light plant, as well as the electric light plant, adequate sewerage facilities, and other noteworthy improvements looking to the conservation of the health and general well - being of the townspeople.”

James Fawcett married Carrie White. The Fawcetts had two sons, John (“Jack”) and Earl; and a daughter, Helen (Mrs. Wellington Weidler).

Jack Fawcett served as a lieutenant with the United States Army Quartermaster Corps in France during World War I. He later became the Crystal Oil Works’ Chemical Engineer (Chief Chemist).

Earl Fawcett was General Manager of the Midland Refining Company, Eldorado, Kansas, 1918 - 1919.

Crystal Oil Works, nearly surrounded by the Pennzoil Refinery (Plant #1) and the Rouseville Cooperage Company (Manion Cooperage Company), was never a large operation. Most of the firm’s output was distributed locally, although some lubricating oils were shipped to a Denver, CO jobbing house (and the rest to overseas markets).

James Fawcett traveled overseas frequently (possibly on Crystal - related business). His comments on a European visit were published in the Oil City Blizzard, and reprinted in The Petroleum Gazette, June, 1913:

“I am getting so sick of table d’hote meals. I don’t know whether I can hold out until we get to London, where the first thing I will order will be an old - fashioned steak or chop. Oh! For one of those Venango club steaks. You get about fifteen courses of various kinds of food, but are hungry when finished as it takes about two hours to get through. Dinner is not served until 6:30, so it is 8:30 to 9:30 before we are through, but everything is arranged to suit, so theaters and picture shows don’t open until 9:30. At home we have half a day’s work done before these people wake up. As we have turned our faces homeward it won’t be long before yours truly will be waiting at the corner for the Rouseville car and I can assure you it will look good to me.”

Walter Cubbon, Plumer (Cornplanter Township) oil producer, dairy farmer and Venango County Commissioner (Republican), acquired an interest in the Crystal Oil Works, 1920s. A gasoline service station was operated adjacent to the refinery’s barrel house at this time.

Fire severely damaged the Crystal Oil Works wax plant, late 1920s. The firm’s business began to decline shortly after this catastrophe.

Crystal management, 1932 - 1933 (in addition to Selden and Cubbon) included: James A. Fawcett sales manager and purchasing agent (co - owner); W.B. Graham, superintendent; Henry McFadden, chief engineer; and John W. Fawcett, chemical engineer.

Refining operations (crude distillation and dewaxing) at the Crystal plant ended by the late 1930s. The barrel house remained in operation, packaging lube oils refined and blended by the adjacent Pennzoil refinery (although marketed by the Crystal firm). Crystal Oil Works continued to operate its own boiler house (required by law), and the gasoline service station.

The Crystal Oil Works barreling / packaging and marketing facility ceased operations shortly after (or during) World War II. Pennzoil used the former Crystal barrel and pump houses for storage until the 1970s, when the buildings were demolished.

Crystal Oil Works memorabilia does not seem to exist in large quantities today (compared to Pennzoil, Quaker State, Wolf’s Head, Coreco, etc. signs, cans, etc.). One reminder of Crystal still exists ….

Selden Avenue, in Oil City, was named for Edwin V.D. Selden (1858 - 1952). Mrs. Cornelia Earp Selden survived her husband until 1966.

E.V.D. Selden was also very active in Masonic organizations, the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Blind Association, Oil City Library, and the Erie Diocese of the Protestant Episcopal Church.