Very few events in the oil and gas industry attract more attention than an out-of-control well fire. “Thousands of curious people” visited the fiery Struble No. 1 well blowout in Isabella County, Mich., according to the Marshall Evening Chronicle in 1931. Ten people died at that tragic blaze.
Dux Gentry, a seasoned drilling veteran soon came to Michigan and he successfully tamed several wells that blew out during drilling. He later served as an onsite expert for capping Michigan oil and gas wells that were uncontrolled and ablaze in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Companies were eager to hire him as a professional firefighter when wells got out of hand. Gentry became a Michigan oilfield legend.
Industry historians credit Myron and Karl Kinley with the first documented use of explosives to extinguish a well fire in 1913. Karl was an oil well shooter in California, dynamiting wells to fracture the rock to improve flow. In 1923, Myron started the M.M. Kinley Company and he trained future legendary well firefighters including Paul Neal “Red” Adair, Asgar “Boots” Hansen Jr. and Edgar “Coots” Mathews. Red Adair reported fighting more than 2,000 wells in his career, and became famous for the quip, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”
Before these high-profile international wild well fighters came to Michigan, 5-foot-3-inch Howard “Dux” Gentry was the Wolverine State’s own wild well fighter. Gentry got his nickname (he pronounced it “Dukes”) from a sailboat he had on Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, when he was young. “Dux” is Latin for the word “leader.”
Gentry quit high school as a freshman and later, recognizing his mistake, took night courses to earn his diploma. He started his career with Louisville Gas and took geology courses while establishing drilling locations and drilling wells as he “figured” oil and gas reserves in the company fields. He began putting out sizeable oil and gas well fires in his twenties.
Early in Gentry’s career, Louisville Gas experienced a gas pipeline washout in eastern Kentucky. With just 13 days’ worth of gas in storage, access was required for supplemental gas from southern Indiana 12 miles away, necessitating an Ohio River crossing. Gentry was charged with installing the necessary pipeline for all but the river crossing; a Chicago firm was awarded that contract. However, he developed a plan to install the river crossing pipeline, and on a weekend did so. At that time before welding techniques were developed, gas pipelines were made from well casings. Using a dredge boat, tugboat and two barges, he installed the pipeline under the Ohio River. Upon completion, a gas leak was detected during a pressure test. Gentry donned his diving suit, found the leak and patched the pipe. Later in his career, he invented an auger used for boring holes in loosened rock underneath a road or highway.
In the early 1930s, Gentry made connections with two oil and gas firms and he established a consulting company in Jackson, Mich., to begin his work in the central Michigan natural gas fields. He specialized in high-pressure natural gas work, introducing high-pressure drilling to Michigan in the mid-1930s. Gentry told the Lansing State Journal in 1936 that “drilling into Michigan’s Stray Sands under pressure not only conserves millions of cubic feet of gas, but also the open flow obtained per foot of pay drilled is more dependable than when the wells are allowed to blow open continuously.”
He was also able to increase the open flow potential in a natural gas well from 10 million to 35.5 million cubic feet per day by deepening the well 40 feet using high pressure drilling, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Gentry brought in the Ward Gibbs gas well in Belvidere Township, Montcalm County, Mich. (Six Lakes Field) with a flow of more than 54 million cubic feet per day. This was the largest well north of the Mason-Dixon line at that time. Numerous times in the Six Lakes Field drilling issues resulted in wells blowing wild. The Carl Laughlin No. 2 well blew out for 30 hours when the control head snapped off. Gentry capped the well for the owners after an estimated $14,000 worth of gas had been lost, according to the State Journal.
The gas produced from several gas fields in mid-Michigan flowed into the state’s first cross-state natural gas pipeline. This pipeline first required hearings before the Public Utilities Commission in 1932. Michigan National Gas Corp. proposed the 157-mile pipeline connecting the Broomfield gas field in Isabella County to cities including Midland, Bay City and Saginaw. Consumers Power Company, a major distributing company taking natural gas from Central Michigan fields, signed on to purchase the gas from the producers and then sell it to the cities.
Constructing a natural gas pipeline in the 1930s could be controversial, like pipeline construction today. Saginaw and the Utilities Commission fought Consumers Power about granting permission to construct the pipeline and about how prices were established for the natural gas delivered to Saginaw. Michigan’s Deputy Attorney General Gerald O’Brien charged Consumers Power with illegal construction of the pipeline from Midland to Saginaw in violation of the Natural Gas Act of 1929. Dan Karn, a vice president, and Clyde Holmes, the legal counsel, were arrested as punishment of the company for the alleged illegal operation. Even Michigan Gov. William Comstock jumped into the fray, issuing a lengthy statement against Consumers Power for bypassing the Utilities Commission control of construction permits and gas prices.
Consumers Power emphatically denied the claim, stating that these issues had been approved for the original pipeline segment to Midland in 1932, and that there was an existing price for gas for the pipeline. Saginaw wanted to break their contract with Consumers Power for gas, based upon the current rate charged for manufactured gas, alleging that natural gas prices would be excessive. The natural gas produced from Broomfield was considered some of the finest and driest quality in America at 1,000 to 1,050 BTU as compared to manufactured gas at 530 to 550 BTU.
While Saginaw fought Consumers to lower the gas price sold, the gas producers were fighting Consumers regarding the price they were being offered. Consumers then hired Gentry to testify at the Federal Trade Commission in 1935 that gas producers were not being deprived of outlets for their natural gas. The State Journal reported that Gentry said the Consumers would “increase the market as reserves warrant.”
Independents had testified that they had to shut-in wells because they could not find a market. After Gentry outlined investigations into gas reserves in Michigan, the commission’s attorney asked him, “What is the reason the independents have no outlet?”
“They have an outlet,” he said. “It is a question of price.”
As reported by the State Journal, Gentry explained the independents expected too high a price for their gas and added he believed they failed to consider reserves, focusing only on the “high open flow of the wells drilled close together.”
He was called upon to tame an out-of-control Russell Stevens oil well near Mosherville, Hillsdale County, Mich. in September 1957. Within a short time, the situation became so perilous that the residents of Mosherville were evacuated as the gusher erupted. The well was a great hazard and the workers needed to remove the casing to get final control of the well. The Benton Harbor News Palladium reported, “With the aid of salt water piped into the 3,700-foot well, the battle was won in an overnight struggle. Gentry is the man in the asbestos suit who has walked often in the very face of flame. The adventurous and risky life of an oil field trouble shooter is sufficient to fill the pages of a book. In emergencies the call goes out to Dux Gentry.”
The Port Huron Times Herald in 1961 reported that “The petroleum industry provides a natural setting for rugged individualists who are not afraid to be different and willing to take risks. Therefore, they are in danger of being considered flamboyant, Dux Gentry notwithstanding. But being different is a big reason for his outstanding success in a highly competitive industry and, as a result, Gentry now can afford to be a bit outlandish.”
Gentry made an impact on Michigan’s oil and gas industry in many ways beyond working on oil and gas wells. In 1950, his consulting included the construction of an oil products pipeline under the St. Clair River from Marysville to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada for Sun Oil Products (2,500 feet long, 12 feet below the riverbed) as detailed in the Times Herald. This river crossing was a part of a 125-mile pipeline from a refinery in Toledo to a polymer corporation in Sarnia. The pipeline crossing used a hydraulic dredge and a derrick scow to create the trench under the river. Meanwhile, a wide swath of wooded land was cut back 1,000 feet through the trees to allow for four pipeline sections, nearly 800 feet long to be welded together for the pipeline. One of the sections exploded during hydrotesting with steel scraps hitting Gentry’s face.
In 1961, Gentry was hired to convert an abandoned salt cavern into an underground gas storage facility. This became the first cavern gas storage facility in the United States. He did it all with flair, flying his helicopter to get a bird’s eye view of pipelines and even commuting by helicopter to the gas storage project from his hotel in Port Huron.
Dux’s wife, Winalee Gentry, was taken in by his exploits and wrote a book about him in the 1950s, “One More River to Cross.”
Gentry owned six companies, which primarily dealt with pipelines and general contracting for the oil and gas industry. He learned to fly an airplane at 25 and a helicopter at 65, and he was thought to be the oldest person to do so. Gentry would often drive his car to business projects with his helicopter in tow.
Sadly, Dux Gentry died in 1963 at 69 when his plane crashed upon returning from a trip to his summer home at Sage Lake in northern Michigan.
While researching this topic, I became nostalgic for some of the unusual nicknames of the past. Whatever happened to unique nicknames like those of wild well fighters – Red, Boots, Coots or Dux? Some of Michigan’s classic oilfield nicknames of the ‘50s and ‘60s were Bucky, Shorty, Pinky, Woody, Lud, Ollie, Benny, Polly, Rollie, Casey, Bertie, Buck, Chappie, Pappa Percy, Monk, Preacher, Stretch, Lefty, Whitey, Red, Smokey, Humpy, Bud, Champ and Spike Horn.