The Old Man and the Oil Men
  © 2007 by K Pelle


November 17, 2007        
RR#1 Gumbo Flats, Alberta  

Hey Jack, how are ya doing?

We're doing okay out here, but you know how it is, at this time of the year, things are slow.  It's a bit early for it, but winter has socked in and a blizzard has blown up, so the snow is swirling around the old farmhouse.  We were lucky this year though, the crops were decent.  We got all of them harvested before the frost, we've got tons of hay baled and stored, all the barns are in good nick and the animals are all healthy, so we're in good shape for the winter.

Today was one of those rare days when nothing went haywire, so I got all the chores done early and was able to come into the house to eat on time.  All the animals are fed, watered and bedded down.  Part of the reason things went so smooth might be the new hired man though, because so far he's been a cracker-jack.  Maybe we hired a good one this time, but only time will tell.

The house is quiet tonight.  The kids are both upstairs, doing their homework, and the wife is already mixing and baking Christmas cakes and puddings for next month's big party, so I'm at loose ends.  In all honesty, I was a touch bored tonight, so I decided to do some paperwork.  In fact, I was going over some of the legal stuff, getting a head start on quarterly tax returns, but I had to get some old papers from the attic and I got sidetracked.  I was hunting around in the old files up there and ran across some of the family records.  Just glancing back through those old musty diaries and journals, I had to chuckle about some of the stories they mention.  Dang it man, we have got quite an interesting family history.

Do you remember when we were kids and my folks were talking about the big fight they had with that big oil company?  Remember hearing how the oil companies had all those lawyers and were pushing around the local farmers, coming into farmer's fields and drilling just about any old where they wanted?  I'm pretty certain that the resulting kafuffle was what got your branch of the family into the scrap steel business.  That happened because Granddad needed a lot of old drill pipe, and your Granddad was able to buy it cheap, so you might be interested in all of the reasons behind that deal.  I know your dad might have told you part of the tale, but since he wasn't here when things started or ended, you probably never heard the whole story.

On top of that, I think you'll enjoy the story just for itself.  After all, it shows some of our family's attitude toward life.  You know, it illustrates just how our family can push that old saying, about lemons and lemonade about as far as it can go.  In other words, we have a tendency to accept the crap that others throw at us, compost that crap into fertilizer, use the fertilizer to grow flowers, then make a profit selling the flowers.  It seems to me that's what your business does every day, dealing in scrap metal like you do.

Anyway,  I'll tack a copy of the tale onto the letter and hope it brings you a chuckle or two.  Now, the story is told from Dad's point of view, and even though he was young, he was there at the time, so I think most of the important points are covered fairly well.  If you've got any questions about it though, fire me a letter or an e-mail and I'll do my best to find out the answers.

I haven't much more to mention to you, so in case I don't hear from you before, I'll close for now by saying 'Wishing you all the best of the season' to you, Mary and the kids, from all of us.  I hope we get to see you all at Christmas though.  If you do want to get out of the city and come up this way for any or all of the holidays, just let us know early and we'll make sure we've got beds available.  I'll even tune up the snowmobiles so all our kids can have some fun and we can have some peace and quiet for a bull session and a beer or two.

I hope to see you then.                               
Your Country Cousin, Charlie.     

PS; here's that report I was mentioning;


The Oldman and the Oilmen.
by J.L.F. - December 16, 1961

Mrs. Lambrick, my English teacher, and Mr. Olsen, my History teacher, have asked us for a combined assignment for our midterms.  We're supposed to write at least a two or three thousand word essay about some interesting vignette of our family history, preferably one that we personally had some part in.  So, here goes.

To start with, I'm part of a big family, who have lived in the area for a long time.  We have a fairly large farm, but most of my family don't live on the farm anymore, just Mom, Dad and me.  Everyone else is off to work in other places, but they do come home often, and they do help out if we need help, so we return the favour if we can.

My great grandfather started our farm by homesteading a half section of farmland.  He was married and they had four kids.  One died and two left home, but my Grandpa stayed on the farm.  By the time my father was born, Great Granddad and Grandpa had each expanded on their land and had more than doubled the size of the farm, owning a section and renting another one.  That was probably a good thing, because Grandma and Grandpa had six kids, but later on Dad was the only one really interested in staying on the farm.  After Grandpa died, Dad inherited ownership of a full section of land, along with a huge house that Grandpa had built for his big family.  When Dad married Mom, he married into a family that owned another section of land, which Mom eventually inherited.  In the space between those two farms there was a third section of land, which Mom and Dad went into debt to buy.  So by the time I came along, Mom and Dad were farming close to two thousand acres.

I was thirteen when we found that our property was right in the middle of a possible new oil field and the oil companies started sniffing around.  I suppose I was the first one in my family to see any sign of them.  Even then I didn't know it, but one afternoon as I was riding home on the school bus, I saw some young guys tying coloured ribbons on our fence.  So, when I got home and talked to Dad about it.  I was surprised at the frown he got on his face right away.  When I asked what was upsetting him, he explained that the men I had seen were probably surveyors for a seismic crew that would be coming through later.  He wasn't very talkative for a while, then he thanked me, but right away he went to the phone and started calling people.

The first guy he phoned was my Uncle Bill, who is a lawyer, and during the call, Dad got a strange grin on his face.  When he got off the phone, he told me to go down to the barn and saddle his horse.  Since he said I could come along if I wanted, I saddled both his horse and mine, then led them up to the house.  As I was waiting outside for Dad, I saw those surveyor guys go past the end of our driveway, so when Dad came outside I told him about it.  He just grinned and nodded.

I thought sure we were going to ride out and talk to those guys, but we didn't.  Instead, we rode the other way and visited some of the neighbours, close friends, but folks that didn't have telephones.  Dad talked to three different neighbours, then we headed back home, but on the way he rode down the ditch and back up the other bank, right close to our fence.  Every time he came to one of those ribbons tied on the barbed wire he would stop and untie it, then put it in his saddlebag.  I asked him about that and he said that the fence was on our property and he didn't like folks littering it up with junk.  Since it was his legal right to remove stuff like that, he was planning to take all of the ribbons off the fence, then give them back to the surveyors if they wanted them.

The next day on the way to school, I noticed that almost none of those ribbons seemed to have survived the night.  For ten miles, all the way to town, they were nearly all gone.  The only ones left were those that had been tied to bunches of long grass or tree branches, almost always on the sections of land that had no fences.  Of course by the time school let out, the surveyors were back on the job, but this time they were tying the ribbons on tall grass and stuff in the ditch and not on any of the farmers' fences.

On the way into town the next morning, the school bus met one of the municipal crews.  It was one of my cousins and I could see he was going out with the big mower, probably to trim back the long grass in the ditches.  Of course they always did that every year in the late summer or fall in order to stop the snowdrifts from building up on the roads so badly in the winter.  Riding home on the bus that night, I saw a lot of the local farmers were out raking up that grass, and it was easy to understand why.  After all, you don't often get free cattle feed, all cut and ready to put in the feed trough.  I just hope they're being careful to get all those plastic ribbons out of that feed, because you never know what something like that would do in a cow's gut.

The next day, the surveyors were back, but this time it took them a lot longer to do their job, after all, they had to drive a stake each time they hung up a ribbon.  Then too, each time they put in a stake, they dribbled or sprayed some paint on the gravel, a line of bright paint, straight out from the flag on the edge of the road.  Too bad the road grader came along the next morning and graded the road.  Of course it was strange that the grader had the snow-spreader wing sticking out the side of the blade at that time of year.  Still, it was fall, and Mom's Uncle Paul, who ran the grader, was always one to be prepared early for any eventuality and I guess he had the grader rigged up in case we had an early snow fall.

By that time, even someone as slow as me had caught on that our friends and family were being just a bit more than slightly uncooperative to those surveyors.  So that night at the supper table, I asked just what was going on and why they were so stubborn about the surveyors.  That's when my folks explained how oil drilling companies hired seismic surveys of an area before they came in to drill oil wells.  Both of them seemed pretty pessimistic and thought that the seismic guys would find that there was oil in the area and were worried about the mess oil well drilling would make of the farms.  Several years before Mom and Dad had driven through a developing oil field down at Turner Valley and had seen the mess that drilling crews made when they put in an oil well.

Now, I couldn't really see the problem until they explained it to me.  You see, according to Dad, oil companies liked to drill as close as possible to the centre of a seismic dome.  The problem was the fact that the spot they usually picked often ended up being right in the middle of a farmer's best field.  Now they might only take up a few acres when they were drilling, but they made an awful mess while they were doing it.  Of course they also needed service roads and things like that, so in actual fact, that field was chopped up and you had find ways to farm around the dang roads and the wellhead.  On top of that, when they drilled, they hauled in all sorts of chemicals and brought up even more crap from the rock they went through as they drilled the well.  Even if they tried to clean up afterward, all the soil on and around the drill site was contaminated, so crops would never grow well on those areas.

In effect, Dad estimated that each well drilled on a farmer's land cost him a minimum of ten acres of land, as well as cutting back on the efficiency of the farm.  After all, when you were cultivating or harvesting a field, every time you had to turn cost you time and money.  With roads and well sites spread around the fields, you spent more time turning than you did working.  He admitted that the farmer got paid for the 'temporary' inconvenience, but in the long run, it was a pittance because of the long term loss of trying to farm a chopped up field.

Really though we weren't so bad off, all of our land had been homesteaded and not that many generations previously either.  At the time those homesteads were granted, if the homesteader 'proved up' on the land, the final land title included the mineral rights.  When Mom and Dad inherited the land, they also inherited those rights.  So when they bought land, they looked ahead far enough that they did their best to get title to the mineral rights as well as the surface rights.  They managed to have those rights included for all, but one quarter section of land.  That meant that for most of our property, if they were approached by an oil company, wanting to put in a well, they could tell the oil company we weren't interested.  Of course since we owned the mineral rights, a producing well could make us rich, but Dad and Mom felt that they wanted to be farmers not oil barons.  I knew exactly what they would tell the oil men at that point.

Unfortunately, the family who owned the mineral rights under that one lonely quarter section of our land had refused to sell us the mineral rights.  If an oil company did want to drill wells in our area, my parents knew that they could try to fight a legal battle about surface access.  But, they'd seen what happened to other farmers who took a similar case to court, then lost.  Then they'd seen the looks on those folk's faces when they'd had to watch as their best fields were chopped up by access roads, well sites, and pipeline routes.  Mom and Dad were very pessimistic about being able to keeping the oil drilling rigs off that quarter section.

I was surprised that they weren't more upset about that, but they explained that they'd started to prepare for the possibility of oil companies coming into the area a few years before.  Dad told me that he'd gotten the idea of what to do because of a meal we'd eaten when we were at the Calgary Stampede.  That year there had been a restaurant tent set up that served buffalo, actually meat from North American Bison, commonly called Prairie Buffalo.  What the restaurant actually served was 'cattalo,' a cross between domestic cattle and buffalo that had been grown in captivity.  Mom and Dad talked it over, then did some research on how those buffalo were raised and decided that with a little preparation they could do it and do it well.

Now it shouldn't be a surprise that they'd chosen to use the quarter section that might end up having oil wells drilled on it for raising those animals.  Dad seeded the whole quarter section to grass, then had it fenced with recycled drill pipe mounted in concrete.  Now that fence is pretty dang hefty, using eight inch posts that stand eight feet high and are spaced twelve feet apart with six inch pipe welded between the upright posts and spaced twelve inches apart from the bottom to the top.  Once the pipe fence was all done Dad arranged to have heavy-gauge page wire fastened to the pipe so the buffalo couldn't get their heads between the pipes and break the welds too easily.  After that he had a water well drilled, then put in a water pump and a water tank, as well as a pair of open fronted shelters and hay feeders.  Next came a set of wing corrals, a squeeze gate and even a loading ramp, all made of creosoted bridge timbers and meant for handling very large, very strong animals.  When everything was prepared, my folks bought two dozen head of female bison and two Brahma bulls, letting them run free on the quarter section.  From that point on my family were in the business of producing 'cattalo.'

Now I knew we had those buffalo and were raising cattalo, I just didn't know the full reason why until that day.  All I really knew about them until then was that the buffalo were a pain in the butt and temperamental as blazes.  You see, buffalo do not like things to change and on top of that, they get riled easily.  We'd gotten them accustomed to having us around, but only when we were on horseback.  They didn't like cars or trucks and they certainly didn't like people who were on foot.

Those animals had been on that quarter section for more than five years before the seismic surveyors appeared and it turned out that my folks pessimism was well founded.  The seismic crew did find results that strongly indicated there was oil under our land and the oil company approached Mom and Dad about drilling for it.  My folks just told those 'No!' and walked away.  Unfortunately, Dad had been right about the folks who still owned the oil rights on that one quarter section of land.  They seemed delighted to jump onto the oil driller's band wagon and were rubbing their hands in glee that they were going to be rich.  Dad's comment about the situation was quite clear; "Well, it looks as if we'll have to let those guys drill, but dammit, they're going to have to work to do it, and we might as well make some money at the same time."

Even though he knew it was useless, Dad tried to refuse the oil well drillers access on grounds of surface rights, but he had no great hopes of even slowing them down.  In fact the situation was so straight forward that the judge wouldn't even grant a temporary restraining order to keep the well drillers off our land.

That's when the fun really started though.

When the surveyors came to set out a few markers in order to set up the drill site on the quarter section, they got run off by charging buffalo.  It took them two weeks and the demolition of four pickup trucks just to get the markers placed to drill two wells.  Then the first crew who tried to set up a drilling rig had three cars totalled by charging animals, then a day or two later they had a truckload of supplies overturned.  Of course the animals were charging the vehicles and injuring themselves, so we had to call the vet to treat them.  And all of that happened in the first week that the drillers were on the site.

Of course our lawyer got an injunction, stopping them from doing more at that time by involving the drilling company in a court battle over the damages they were doing to our animals.  In court, the first thing that happened was that the oil drilling company's lawyer tried to get the judge to order Dad to remove the animals from the site.  Our lawyer simple said two words; 'O priori' or something that sounded like that.  I guess that meant that the buffalo and cattalo were there first, so he felt it was up to the oil company and the drill rigs to work around them.

That's when the lawyer for the oil men jumped up and screamed that it was obvious that buffalo were simply there to intimidate the oil drillers.  The judge laughed at that, pointing out that we could prove we'd bought the buffalo several years before and if Dad could foretell the future, "he should be playing the stock market, not working his ass off on the farm."  Our lawyer even pointed out that my parents had been selling cattalo meat to local restaurants and stores for a few years prior to the court date, and that we made a profit on the business.  So in the long run, the judge decided that our stand was legal and proper.  He even stipulated that any drilling and oil production had to be accomplished without undue interference with the farming operation and he had that put in writing.

Dad and our lawyer walked out of the court grinning like fools, even though they lost the actual case to block the oil drilling operation.  Oh, we got a tidy sum for the actual area the oil company used, and we got paid for the vet fees for the animals.  However, as far as Dad was concerned, it wasn't nearly enough to compensate for the damage the drill rigs would do.

Next the oil drilling company brought in the materials to start fencing the roadway and drill site, but they started to do it with barbed wire.  Dad just sent around a lawyer, a veterinarian and the SPCA representative for the area.  They had along a legal warning that if the animals were injured by becoming excited at the noise and charged against that wire, the drill rig would be responsible for all damages.  So the drillers had to scavenge up drill pipe and build a fence like ours.  That's when the lawyer again visited the farm.  He showed them the judge's decision about 'undue interference' to the farming operation, explaining that they couldn't divide grazing land with indiscriminately placed fences.  No fences could be placed in any way that would prevent the animals from having free access to feed troughs, grazing areas, or water.  In other words the only areas they could fence was around the rig itself.

When they put in cattle gates, those drive thru things with pipe sections over a pit, a bison cow charged after the first car that crossed it.  That old bison cow broke both front legs and had to be put down, so everything was shut down again as we went back to court.  The oil company were forced to rip out the cattle gates, and replace them with heavy duty swing gates.  On top of that, the judge insisted that they had to buy a replacement animal of 'similar type and value' to the one they'd killed.  Of course Dad wouldn't accept a cash settlement, saying that if he did that, he'd soon lose the whole herd to their carelessness and ineptitude.  In fact he was sure that they'd try to kill the animals intentionally.  When they bought us a six month old heifer calf, he refused her, telling them it would be two years before she'd calve and he was running a meat producing farm, not a petting zoo.  He insisted on getting a full grown female bison that was in calf, just like the one they'd crippled in their cattle gate.  When they finally found and brought us a mature female, she produced a female buffalo calf a month later, so that increased our breeding herd.  Dad even sent the company a thank you card, because right then, it seemed as if even the buffalo were thumbing their noses at the oil company.

The water well was in one corner of the quarter section.  So when the drilling supply company started to run in a fenced road that would interfere with the cattalo getting a drink, Dad raised the dickens and told them go rip it out.  That's when the oil company first offered to buy the whole quarter section, lock stock and barrel.  Of course Dad refused.  The oil company rebutted with an offer to buy the bison, the brahma bulls and the cattalo, replacing them with ordinary cattle, so Dad's lawyer laughed, then showed them a contract Dad was negotiating at the time.  A Japanese firm was offering to purchase all the cattalo we could produce for ten times the normal price of beef.  The oil company representatives just threw their hands in the air and walked out, but a week later they were back at the negotiating table again.

In the long run they bought out that contract, and even paid Dad for his costs to put in the original fencing.  We were all standing there the day that the bison, the Brahma bulls and the young cattalo were loaded onto cattle trucks to go directly to a slaughter house.

Dad clapped me on the shoulder and grinned as the tailgate of the cattle truck was shut behind the final animal.  Then we left, going straight home to arrange to have the page wire renewed on our pipe fence.  The fencing contract was finished the next week and we took delivery of our new stock for the place - eighty two Spanish Cashmere goats.  Six weeks later, the oil company bought those too.  It seems that the goats had caused more trouble in six weeks than the bison, Brahmas and cattalo ever had, because those goats just loved to be around people so they went under, over or through any fence the oil company built.

The oil company caved in after that, offering to lease the whole quarter section from us for a sum equal to the amount we could have made by farming the land.  Dad had the lawyer include a provision that we had final say on what would be built or grown on the property and who could hold any sublease they might arrange in the future.  That lease brought in more money than farming the land would have, since the rate was based on the average income for the five previous years.  The lawyer was nice to them though.  He even gave them a choice of whether that income included the price of the proposed Japanese contract for cattalo meat or the amount Mom had anticipated getting for the sale of Cashmere wool from eighty-two Spanish Cashmere goats.

Of course that wasn't the end of the chuckles for us.  Up until then, they had started two wells and once all of our animals were gone, they made up time, so the wells were completed in a few weeks.  In each case, they hit pressure and capped the wells to test for flow.  On one well they hit pressurized saltwater, in other words they'd drilled into a portion of the dome below the oil level.  The other well was slightly better, because they hit natural gas.  Of course since the closest natural gas pipeline was fifty-four miles away and there were no other local natural gas wells, it was a rather pyrrhic victory for the oil company because they had to cap both wells.

They didn't give up easily though.  Inside of days of getting the bad news on the first two wells, they moved the rigs and were drilling two more.  Suspiciously, the new drilling sites had been placed near the edge of the quarter section, within a hundred yards of land on which we owned mineral rights.  An inspector discovered that they were angle drilling under our property, and he brought us proof of what they were doing and how they were doing it.  When he told us about it, our lawyer took him to meet the local judge.  The judge had heard about Mom and Dad's stand, but he advised us to let them drill, then if they struck oil, he suggested we serve them with a major lawsuit for theft of valuable mineral resources.  Sure enough, they hit oil on those two wells, then ran pipelines to connect with an oil plant.  However the day that the oil started flowing in those pipelines, the sheriff and two court officers swooped in to shut them down.  Of course we took the company to court, and the judge threw the book at them.  Before another year had passed, my family owned two producing oil wells and the oil company had allowed the lease to lapse on our quarter section of land.

In the long run, the remainder of the farmland we own has never had one oil well drilled on it, but even then, oil has left us quite well off because a second company buys the oil from those two producing wells.  Most of that oil money goes into a fund to put local young folk and members of our family through secondary schools and universities though.  On top of that, we've been able to tap into the natural gas well, so our family and all our nearest neighbours have free heat in all of our houses and farm buildings.  Of course we had to pay for the pressure reducers, the trenching and the piping necessary to run it to our farms.  As well as that we have to pay for wellhead service, a water trap and a flare head, but it would still be cheap at twice the price.

Now even that wasn't quite the end of my family's dealings with the oil companies. I have to admit that Dad has an unconventional way of looking at problems and employs some rather original methods in his solutions as well.  The people in power with a competing oil company must have recognized that trait in my father.  Not long after Mom and Dad had done a thorough job of showing the original company that farmers weren't necessarily stupid and uneducated, the second company approached Dad and offered him a part time job.  They wanted to hire him as a go between, so that if and when they ran into any similar situations, he could advise them so they wouldn't get burnt quite as badly as the first company had.

At first Dad treated it as a joke, but when they persisted, he pointed out that he ran a large farm, indicating that he needed to be on hand to make moment by moment decisions.  I think Mom may have had a comment or two about that when they were in private though.  After all, my family didn't work the farm strictly on our own.  My parents had found that they needed extra manpower to run a farm the size of ours anyway, so Dad hired a married man who worked for us year around.  We even built a small house for him and his wife, with the provision that she'd make extra money feeding the temporary workers we hired for peak periods.  Since those men were only in her house for meals and slept in a bunkhouse, she was quite happy with the arrangement.

On top of that, I'll be going to Olds School of Agriculture next year, but I'm only doing that to get to be a better farmer than I am now.  As it is, I can handle most of the day to day decisions that need to be made and Mom can offer advice too, since she's lived on the farm all her life.  With all the bases covered, the system is quite flexible.  So I think Mom laid down the law, explaining to Dad that he could easily take some time away from the farm.

Whatever the reason, it wasn't long before Dad agreed to take the oil company's job offer, but supposedly only on trial basis.  So far it's worked out well, but Dad still chuckles every time he cashes one of the checks he gets for advising the oil company.  He told me the other day that since the pipe fence is still solid, he's putting the money from the oil company aside to buy some more buffalo, only a few though.

You see it seems he developed a taste for cattalo meat when we were raising them.


the end

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