Sep 10, 2008 | Posted in Essays, People

David L. Weber, 2008

Jack Payne wrote the following in the Erie Times - News sometime during the 1970s:

“ROUSEVILLE - A mile east of here on Cherry Run you come upon Pennzoil’s huge truck terminal. The buildings are modern and the grounds are as level as a pool table from the highway back to the stream. A casual observer wouldn’t give it a second look. Except, perhaps, for two old pine tree sentinels close to the road - no one today would ever imagine the site has a heritage.”

The location mentioned by Payne had quite a history - one of the first oil wells stimulated with explosives, a 1920s casing head gasoline plant, a movie set built for a 1923 oil industry film, and a restaurant / camp. All were on property owned by Henry Beers and his sons.

Henry Irving Beers was born in Ridgefield, CT, June 8, 1830. At age 15 Henry went to New York City where he eventually managed a store owned by his brother - in - law, Peter P. Cornen. Henry Beers successfully operated the store while Cornen decided to seek gold in California, 1848 - 1849.

The Cornen store was closed and sold, according to Charles A. Babcock (1919):

“In June, 1849, [Henry Beers] received a letter from Mr. Cornen instructing him to sell as much of the stock as possible at private sale, have a catalogue auction of the remainder and rent the store, all of which he accomplished in a few months besides getting ready for his own departure for the gold coast.”

Henry Beers arrived in San Francisco, 1850. He operated a restaurant - later a general store - in partnership with George Dornin. Beers also owned several rental storefronts, and founded an importing - shipping business with John Davies.

Beers & Davies opened a department store, and published a newspaper, the True Californian.

Henry Beers retuned to New York City, 1859. His arrival in the East coincided with the beginning of the petroleum industry in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Charles A. Babcock described Beers & Cornen’s entry into the Pennsylvania oil business:

“About this time the rich finds of oil in Pennsylvania were proving to be quite as profitable as the gold fields, and in the spring of 1862 Mr. Beers arrived at McClintockville, about two and one - half miles from Oil City, and began his connection with the oil business. He and his brother - in - law, Mr. Cornen, commenced buying and shipping oil to Pittsburgh, and the next year, 1863, they bought the property which was to yield a fortune in oil, the celebrated Smith farm on Cherry run, one mile above Rouseville. No drilling had been done when the property came into their possession, and they commenced operations in 1864, with such wonderful results that the wells yielded from twenty - five to two hundred and fifty barrels a day for a period of two years, during which time the price of oil went as high as thirteen dollars a barrel.”

William Reed’s early attempts to stimulate an oil well’s production with explosive torpedoes took place on the Smith Farm, 1864.

Henry Beers retained ownership of the Cherry Run property, always a paying venture, until his death.

Beers & Cornen / Henry I. Beers also owned other oil lands in Venango County. The Beers - Cornen partnership invested in New York City real estate, including the land sold to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (New York Central Railroad) for construction of Grand Central Station.

Henry Beers later owned oil properties in Venango, McKean and Forest Counties; at Sistersville, WV and Marion, IN. He was also a major stockholder in the Manufacturers Light & Heat Company (Columbia Gas Corporation), of Pittsburgh, PA.

Other Beers interests included the First National Bank of Oil City, the Citizen’s Banking Company of Oil City, the Oil City Oil Exchange, Citizen’s Traction Company, Oil City & Petroleum Bridge Company (State Street Bridge), two downtown Oil City business blocks, an Oil City oil field supply / automobile parts and garage accessories store (one of the first auto parts stores in Venango County) and a Marion, IN oil field supply store - machine shop.

Henry Beers never held political office. Charles Babcock noted that Beers “was a strong believer in the principles of the Democratic party, and was a delegate to the national convention of 1888, which met at St. Louis, where Grover Cleveland received his second nomination for the Presidency.”

Beers was also a member and vestryman of Christ Episcopal Church, Oil City.

Henry Beers was married three times. His sons; Frank, Walter, Henry and Percival (“Percy” / “Uncle Percy’); inherited the oil, gas, banking, real estate and machine shop interests.

Henry and Elizabeth Hickman Beers (third marriage) were in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, and barely escaped with their lives. Mr. and Mrs. Beers later wintered in the Los Angeles area.

Henry I. Beers died in Oil City, February 22, 1917.

Beers Brothers & Company continued operations after Henry Beers’ death. The family also operated the oil field supply store and machine shop at Marion, Indiana. The New York Industrial Recorder (1904) described the Beers operations:

“Beers Brothers & Company, producers, buyers and sellers of oil property, have their main office at No. 1 Seneca Street, and a branch office at Marion, Indiana. They are owners of all patents and manufacturers of the celebrated B.B. extension valve, which increases the capacity of tubing one - third, will reduce the hours of mining where the operator has head walls, or where he is running a fast motion will reduce the revolution ten per cent, and achieve the same result.”

The Marion machine shop of Beers Brothers also manufactured automobile parts. “Percy” Beers was partly responsible for this diversification, according to Charles Babcock:

“With his brothers [Percival] is also doing business in Oil City as dealers and jobbers in automobile and garage supplies, being established in an up - to - date building with every facility for prompt and efficient attention to their trade, which is large and growing.”

Walter Beers was largely responsible for the Indiana machine shop operation. He held several patents for oil well supplies and automobile parts / accessories.

Beers Brothers & Company operated Venango County oil leases on the Smith Farm, McClintockville, Kaneville, Petroleum Centre / Petroleum Center and Sage Run (Cranberry Township).

Indiana oil properties were operated by Beers Brothers & Company and the Center Oil Company, a related firm.

A casing head gasoline plant - vacuum secondary recovery system was installed on the Cherry Run (Smith Farm) lease, c. 1920. Howard Foggan recalled this oil lease many years later:

“The Beers Gasoline Plant was a rather large operation, with three large engines driving large compressors and there was a bunk house out front where two men on a shift would spend some of their time and wait on customers who would stop for gas. This was just a skeleton frame building covered with corrugated iron in which they had two of the largest Reznor stoves [available] going full blast.”

Three central power houses pumped the lease’s Second and Third Sand (the latter sand had the natural gas from which gasoline was extracted) oil wells. Franklin Valveless gas engines were said to have powered the gasoline plant.

Percy Beers was directly in charge of the Venango County leases. Ernest Pyle worked as foreman of the Smith Farm property.

A 2003 Venango County Historical Society publication stated the following:

“Ernest Pyle lived in Siverly for a time, crossing the river by boat to work to work on the Beers lease there [opposite Oil City, along Sage Run]. Later he moved to the [Beers family] home at McClintockville and worked the Cherry Run lease. At first, Mr. Pyle drove a team to the leases near Rouseville and later he had a company - owned vehicle.”

A movie set was constructed on the Beers Brothers’ Smith Farm lease, 1922. The following appeared related to this development, in The Titusville Herald, July 10, 1922:

“Prominent New York Movie Men Will Photograph Replica of Derrick and Scenes of Sixty Years Ago.

“It was at first planned to stage the scenes for the picture directly at the site of the Drake Well about a mile east of the Titusville city limits on the Watson flats, but after conferring with the officers of Canadohta Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, which owns the plot of historic ground, it was decided not to damage the property, but instead to erect a replica of the apparatus used by Col. Drake at a more convenient place in Oil Creek valley.

“…. The Smith farm on the Plumer road about one and a half miles above Rouseville has been selected as the scene for the pictures and a replica of the Drake derrick, boarded up as in the [John Mather] pictures, has already been erected.

“…. All of the actors, with a few possible exceptions, will be local characters and Samuel Smith, whose father drilled the Drake well, will be included in the picture.

“…. A dam has been constructed in the vicinity of the replica of the well and on this small pond will be enacted scenes similar to those of half a century or more ago, when the oil was transported in barges down Oil Creek.”

E.H. Butler, a New York City movie promoter, produced The World’s Struggle For Oil (filmed on the Smith Farm) under contract for the Sinclair Oil Company.

Filming took place during the annual Drake Day observance, August, 1922. W.S. Mowris, a Sinclair executive and friend of “Uncle Percy” Beers, helped work out details for the movie production.

Local oil industry pioneers who had bit parts in the film included: Samuel Smith, Capt. William Hasson, John L. McKinney, Samuel Fertig, Roe Reisinger, George Wratten, William “Big Bill” Hoffman, John McLaurin and Edwin C. Bell.

Oma Turk, a Plumer drilling contractor and oil producer, appeared in the Drake Well scenes.

The Beers Lease movie set was turned into a park / tourist campground, 1923. Jack Payne wrote the following:

“The late ‘Uncle Percy’ [Beers] put five acres of the [Smith] farm in two park parcels - one for his family, and the other for the public - and named them ‘Beers Camp.’

“The twins contained picnic tables, fireplaces, a swimming hole, spring water and walking paths paved with finely washed oil well sand pumpings. Both parks were electrified in later years for nighttime use.”

Bert Morgan operated / managed Beers Camp for the owner after 1926. The restaurant (in the “Drake Well” set), featured barbecued ham sandwiches. Beer sales (liquor license) and a dance hall were added at Prohibition’s end, 1933.

The Titusville Herald carried the following item, March 6, 1942:

“The restaurant and dance hall known as Beers Camp on the Rouseville - Plumer road was destroyed by fire shortly before 7 a.m. yesterday, with a loss estimated at $9,000. There is some insurance.”

The restaurant - dance hall was not rebuilt. Within five years the Beers oil lease and gasoline plant (with its filling station) ceased operations. The oil production site was abandoned, c. 1946 - 1947.