Today in Alberta, he's known as the Father of the Petroleum Industry, but when William Stewart Herron first noticed oil bubbling along the banks of Sheep Creek in the province's Turner Valley, he was a farmer -- or, less charitably, according to others, a horse wrangler.
Herron had worked in the Pennsylvania oil fields, but had returned to Canada and bought a 900-acre ranch in Alberta, where he also had a cartage service that hauled coal from Black Diamond to Okotoks, Canada.
It was during one of those trips that Herron saw seepage in the valley.
Sensing something big, he sent samples to both the University of Pennsylvania and University of California. Both schools sent back reports that hydrocarbons existed in the sample; so, like any horse trader, Herron acquired an additional 700 acres of land in the surrounding area. In successive years, he continued to buy mineral leases, so, eventually, Herron controlled more than 7,000 acres.
Acquiring backing for future exploration from A.W. Dingman, a Calgary businessman, and R.B. Bennett, a Calgary lawyer, Herron established the Calgary Petroleum Products Co. in 1912. After drilling to a depth of 2,718 feet, the company had a discovery in May 1914 at Dingman No. 1 well.
This discovery inaugurated the first Turner Valley oil boom, which lasted only till August 1914 -- the start of World War I. But the early excitement of the find was so great that within one 24-hour period, developers formed more than 500 oil companies (even if, as it turned out, only 50 wells were drilled).
It's worth noting that Dingman and many of its successors were "wet" natural gas wells rather than true oil finds.
Good, Not Great
Yet, while Dingman No. 1 was notable, and the naphtha recovered was said to be pure enough to fuel automobiles, Herron failed to attract eastern Canadian investment -- a necessary requirement for exploration in this or any other Canadian field at the time.
Still, the area, according to some, was known as "Little Chicago." According to Jack Downee, who comments on a Web site dedicated to Canadian culture: "From Alcohol to whores and on to zippers, you could learn your ABCs in these wide-open oil towns. You could also lose your shirt or life, and many did!"
It's not that Herron lost his shirt. Far from it. But Turner Valley was no Spindletop, no Glennpool -- and in 1921, representatives of the Canadian subsidiary of American Standard Oil of New Jersey said Turner Valley did not produce enough to warrant calling it a proven field.
Primitive drilling techniques, inadequate transportation and a lack of suitable oil and gas refineries added to Tuner Valley's lukewarm reviews and possibilities back East. Local businessmen, otherwise excited about the discovery, knew that oil and gas production in Alberta would require outside capital and expertise, so it was a welcome development when, in 1917, Standard Oil of New Jersey acquired land leases for future exploration in the province.
But after the war, the Turner Valley enjoyed its second boom, if you can call it that; markets were minimal, so companies in its fields burned off excess product -- by some estimates an astonishing 90 percent of what was being pumped -- by discharging it into a ravine and then setting it ablaze.
It was said the Turner Valley skies were lit both day and night from the glow of these flares. Because of the light created, historians say grass stayed green year-round and locals could hunt around the clock.
Turner Valley during this time became known as "Hell's Half Acre" (Incidentally, there is a Web site dedicated to this period in the history of Turner Valley: www.hellshalfacres.com) and was the largest oil field in Canada. For more than 10 years, Turner Valley's second boom produced 200 million cubic feet of gas daily, enough to have supplied the daily needs of New York City.
Not that it ever got there.
Even when pipelines were eventually laid to Calgary, there was still far too much gas than was needed.
The Third Boom
In the 1930s, during Tuner's third boom, people would come from all over Canada and the United States looking for work in the oil fields. This migration coincided with new activity and not, incidentally, the Great Depression; oil production grew steadily in Turner Valley until the field peaked in 1942, producing over 10 million barrels of oil per day.
Turner Valley is and has always been a picturesque community, nestled at the entrance to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, 35 minutes from Calgary, near Kananaskis Country.
But the industry now, ever since production halted in the mid 1980s, is mostly gone. It's an area that still carries its economic DNA -- ranching/agriculture and petroleum production -- but the gas plant, which was built in 1930 and was operational for 50 years, is now part of a national historical site. With its quaint shops, artisan studios and breathtaking scenery, Turner Valley is a place for tourists and historians.
In the shadow of tanks, pipelines, domed buildings and scrubbing chimneys, people now golf and fish and go to Rotary Club and the Foothills Figure Skating Club.
As for Herron, the man who founded it all, he sold his rights out in 1921. Later, though, he re-established himself in the industry when he created the successful Okalta Oil Ltd. in 1925.
Not bad for a farmer. Or horse wrangler.