Arthur Edwin Lidderdale seeks his fortune

My maternal grandfather came to the United States in the company of his parents, the whole family emigrating from Salford, England in 1867. Arthur Edwin Lidderdale was two years old. As with my paternal great- and grandparents (this group from Germany), the family was solidly working class. In a note to my cousin Jean Lidderdale Campbell, Grandfather Arthur noted that his father had worked in a tea factory while in England. The family settled in Buffalo NY, and Arthur relayed the information that his father worked there in a wallpaper factory. [A memorial of my mother and her family]

Now. Buffalo sits just a few miles north of western Pennsylvania, and just before the American Civil War, something called ‘oil’ was discovered about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh. Actually, oil had been known from various places in the Northeast through a phenomenon called “oil seeps.” This is where oil is not being trapped by the rock structures that normally contain it below the earth’s surface, and it bubbles to the surface (where it always wants to go, pressure-wise). In fact, at least one oil seep was in the middle of a creek (more like a river, when I saw it), and it quite naturally came to be called Oil Creek. When an entrepreneur or two finally figured out what to do with oil (a fairly simple refining process yields kerosene, which then replaced whale oil as America’s after-dark light source), they set about figuring ways to gather enough of this seepage to justify the effort. When the effort proved financially viable, a company of men who had subscribed to shares in the venture sent one Edwin Drake to Oil Creek for research into how to get more of the slippery black stuff than they were able to gather from the water and from surrounding oil springs.

One thing is nearly always connected to another, and Drake made use of the salt well (brine) drilling skills that had developed in the area (salt was then considered more valuable than oil, the discovery of which during a salt well drilling operation would usually scuttle plans for the salt well), and he was able to report success by 1859. The area went crazy. Speculation ran rampant, and land was being leased in plots so small that oil wells sometimes touched their neighbors. At a later time, when better records were kept, it was estimated that at Spindletop in Texas, the huge oil field there yielded some $50 million dollars in revenue (back when $50 million actually meant something). But it is also estimated that more than $80 million was invested in the area, much of the difference due to the fraud that invariably follows such explosive changes. [some pictures of the modern commemoration of Drake's oil exploration]

The Oil Creek area (Oil City PA) is part of a large oil deposit that extends from just south of Buffalo, and gets into Ohio. In that sense, our grandfather can be said to have followed the entire field. Beginning his American life in Buffalo, he became a machinist there (by when in his life, we don’t know), and married Elizabeth Hilbury, also from Buffalo. An early photograph that we believe to be connected with their wedding was taken in Butler PA. After some time at the end of this particular oil deposit (in Ohio), he ended his oil-related career in Wyoming (a new oil field), a career-victim of the American Depression of the late 1920s and the 1930s. We’re not sure what he did for a living during the 1930s (except to live shortly with a son and then move to California—thank you, Grandpa!), but he took up the machinist craft during World War II, getting at least one newspaper story and photograph as the oldest laborer in his profession.

The movement of the family through the 1920s appears to have been related to the continuing discovery of oil deposits. Entire towns were created in a few days, then either abandoned or dismantled and moved to a new place a year or two later! As a native West Coaster, I am very familiar with photographs of the California Gold Rush (roughly contemperaneous with the first oil boom) and even of the Yukon Gold Rush several years later . The striking difference between looking at such West Coast "mad rush" events is that there were very, very few women, which meant very, very few families. And the oil country pictures often show entire “normal” towns of people, with the whole range of ages and sex one expects from a town. Judging from what I see around me a hundred years later, this phenomenon has to do with the fact that the oil boom occurred in an area already strongly settled. Look at my relatives, for example. Immigrants at work in American factories, and then word comes of great riches in oil—just miles away, and off they go.

Arthur and Elizabeth were either married in Butler PA or soon took up residence there, and that year (1892) was the year of the immense Titusville/Oil Creek flood and fire. They almost certainly passed through this place on their way to Butler (and back to Buffalo, if they ever had time for such a vacation).

Their first son, Elmer, was born in Butler (1893), and then the family moved to nearby Glade Mills (probably, a new set of wells), where the next son, George, was born (1896). This large field (called the Appalachian Basin) stretches into Ohio, and it was there in 1903 that the last son, Charles, was born. Evidently, they stayed longer in Scio OH than in most places, as my mother was born there, too (1909). You can see an oil well in their back yard.

Sometime after that, the Lidderdale family moved to Wyoming, where an entirely different set of oil fields had been discovered (and that still contain serious amounts of oil). Our grandfather worked as a traveling salesman for the Spano company. In one picture, the Wyoming license plate of the company car has a 1926 tag. My mother, Mildred, married about this time, and stayed in Casper. Her father and mother moved elsewhere (but still within the region), and they all got back together when the Depression hit, and everyone lost his job. After a stay in Michigan (where my cousin Louise still lives), gramps and what was left of his family moved out to California, possibly because his brother George had gone there first. We don’t know whether our grandfather formally worked again until the famous couple years as a machinist during the years of WWII.

One thing’s for sure. If he didn’t work, it wasn’t because he was rich. As is true for the vast majority of folks who work in the oil business (or the gold business or the music business), there were livings to be made but few fortunes. The few fortunes get all the publicity. As with my paternal branch—German farmers who were among the last of America’s homesteaders, the Lidderdales never got much past that earthy origin from which we non-aristrocrats originate. That path would remain for their descendants to take. We’re still wandering around out there somewhere.