I have always been fascinated by the rise and fall of places. I’m talking about spots in our world where hope and optimism brought people in droves and then, somehow, failed to keep them. These are places where the world literally changed pace – and then reverted back to nature. If you have ever driven the Kansas Turnpike near El Dorado, you came near one of these places, and I’ll bet you never knew it.
The folks who named the town of El Dorado were probably NOT thinking about oil. While investors knew there was oil in Kansas as early as the 1860s, it wasn’t until 1915 that oil became a major player in the state. The mythic “City of Gold” El Dorado was named for drew Spanish explorers to the Kansas plains as early as the mid-1500s. Of course, the only “gold” they or any other pioneers could have seen back then, was dried tallgrass waving in the Flint Hills wind.
BUT in 1915 the title took on a whole new meaning when “black gold” hit it big.
It started with Stapleton #1, which is situated east of the I-35 exit at mile marker 71. This is the site where science first accurately predicted a big oil strike and revolutionized the oil industry. The strike at the historic Stapleton #1 well proved geologists could play an important role in the search for oil. For a while, the area became one of the largest oil producing fields in the world.
Now, what was once a bustling area where thousands of people lived and worked is marked only by a white fence, a commemorative stone and a stilled pumpjack. The rest of the area has been completely reclaimed by the land.
Of course, El Dorado oil didn’t go away. The business just changed course. In the distance, past Stapleton #1, to the east, you can see the refineries still working away at the same industry. The history of oil in our state can be best understood with a visit to the Kansas Oil Museum at the Butler County Historical Center. I took my middle son there recently for a Saturday afternoon visit.
The museum is set up nicely for visitors of all ages. There is a lot of great information about the history of Butler County, and plenty of hands-on items to appeal to both kids and parents. We learned a little bit about the native culture, early settlers and agriculture. Then we explored the area that explained the oil story. He liked the models of oil rigs.
Outside the main building, we found a 10-acre display featuring early oil digging equipment and many buildings that gave an idea of what it was like for the thousands of workers and their families who lived in these oil boom-towns. The small lease houses were color coded by the oil companies that built them. Grocery stores, doctor’s offices and entertainment were all once a part of the life on the land that has now reverted back to open prairie. My son loved the big machines and cables, as well as the building of “Tin Lizzies” and the one room school house. If you go, I highly recommend a detour to see where the town of Oil Hill once laid. If you ask at the front desk, they can give you directions to go visit the Stapleton well. Be warned, the road is bumpy, and you do have to drive a bit on gravel. It is only about a five minute drive though, and worth the extra time to complete the adventure.
Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising three little sunflower boys and a dog named Georg