Jewish black gold?

Sholem Alechem Oil Field in Oklahoma: A little-known piece of Americana.

oil derrick 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
oil derrick 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
State Route 7 from Duncan to Ardmore in southern Oklahoma is a very twisting road dotted by clusters of occasional oil wells. The discovery wells of this area in the northeastern portion of Stephens County Oklahoma and extending into western Carter County were drilled in 1923 by the Humble Oil and Refining Company. About a half a mile before the Stephens-Carter county line, the road climbs sharply with a variety of oil derricks in sight. At the crest of this rise, about seven or eight miles from the town of Velma, is a large sign that reads: "Sholem Alechem Gasoline Plant." Forty-two years ago I had the experience of first sighting these unusual words in the Oklahoma countryside. I was on my way from Fort Sill, my military post, to a Native American boarding school conference. This sign motivated me to a grand quest for its origin and for the person who had named it. Various people assisted me and written sources became a key to this oil title which was first posted in the 1920s. In 1956, geologist H. R. Billingsley wrote an analysis of the field's growth which is still the key description of this important oil center. "The Sholem Alechem development continued slowly throughout the 1920s, mainly in the southeastern portion of the field. With the drop in the value of crude oil at the time of the economic crisis, however, development came to a virtual standstill; only a few small wells were completed during the 1930s." In fact, until the fall of 1947, Sholem Alechem played but a minor role in the oil production of Oklahoma. Then the discovery of the deeper Springer sandstones that fall led to a skyrocketing of the output of oil. "The accumulated production has increased," Billingsley wrote, " from 42,533,152 barrels as of January 1948 to 83,865,713 barrels as of June 1953. As a result of this formidable increase, Sholem Alechem has become one of the largest oil-producing fields in Oklahoma." Initially, I was told by local residents that Sholem Alechem was a Native American name because of the Commanches and Apaches who resided in the area. However, even for those who did not know the actual source of the name, there were residents of Ardmore and Healdton who were certain that Sholem Alechem was a Hebrew name and that the field was boosted by the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948. TO TRACE the origin of this unusual Oklahoma name from 1923 to the present, it is necessary to focus on the eastern part of the United States. The community of Easton, Pennsylvania was founded in the 19th century on the Delaware River. Easton was north of two thriving steel centers, Bethlehem and Allentown. With the large immigration of Eastern European Jews after 1881, Easton's Jewish population rose to about 3,000. The talented, adventuresome son of an Easton couple took the major role in the tale of the Sholem Alechem Oil Field. Morris Krohn and Jenny Fabrikant married in Poland in 1888. Their first child, Herman, was born there. Then, Morris left wife and child, went to New York, worked and saved money to bring them over. Eleven months later the family was reunited since Morris had been successful in a small dry goods store. Two more children were born in New York. Then Morris transferred his growing family to Newark, New Jersey, where he opened a larger store. He followed a pattern of many mercantile oriented Jews of that period. A talented businessman with an entreprenurial thrust, Morris sired a fourth child, William, in Newark and it was this son who absorbed the talent of his father and transformed it in most unusual ways. Shortly, before the start of the 20th century, Morris took the Krohn family to Easton, opened a store, made that city a permanent home and even increased his family to seven. Child number four, William (Bill) was to make quite a name for himself. His older brother-in-law Sol wrote in a letter, "My brother-in-law Bill was the restless one of the seven children, a talented and good student." In his elementary and high school years, he used his his athletic prowess to lead the Easton basketball team to the state championship. A close boyhood friend of Bill's was Harold Moss, who became a noted philanthropist in Denver, Colorado. When Krohn was identified in 1967 in a syndicated story related to the Sholem Alechem Oil Field, Moss described their youth in Easton. "Bill and I only lived eight houses apart. We played together at the YMHA. Another one of our chums was the $6000-a-week comedian Joe Lewis. His real name was Joe Klewan and my mother would scold me for letting that loafer in my house. When we were kids, Lewis would dance and do a jig at the YMHA. Bill and I played as he danced." Bill's intellectual abilities won many honors for him. He loved to write, and he taught himself how to draw cartoons and caricatures. Although he received a scholarship to Lehigh College in Bethlehem, he only spent one semester there. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in theUS Army Air Corps. His first military posting was at Ford Junction in England. From there he flew bombing raids in a Hadley Page aircraft. The local Easton press and the Jewish community praised Bill for his duels with the noted Red Baron. Subsequently, Bill was stationed in Italy where he instructed Caproni pilots on pusher-type planes. Fortunately, none of his planes was ever hit.When he returned from the war, Easton was too calm for him, so he went west, ending up in Ardmore, Oklahoma. THE STATE of Oklahoma was born in the first decade of the 20th century after drivers used covered wagons in an exciting land rush beginning in Texas. The number of Jews involved was limited but land was acquired by them in Lawton (next to Fort Sill), Ardmore, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Okmulgee. As a chaplain at Fort Sill, I had the opportunity to use the Torah which was brought to Lawton by Morris Simpson in his covered wagon in 1909. Simpson, a local merchant had a famous artillery piece named for him and the son of a Native American chief bore the name Quanah Parker Simpson. When Bill Krohn arrived in Ardmore, there were fewer than 50 Jews in the town, but the fervor surrounding the discovery of oil was a key facet of the community. Bill quickly obtained a job on the local paper, the Daily Ardmoreite. A local journalist who knew him well wrote this description. "Krohn was known as an outgoing reporter who wanted to make sure that he never missed a story. His amiable personality won him many friends in the oil fraternity. In southern Oklahoma, Ardmore was the center of the oil fever. The paper added to the frenzy of the oil boom by publishing a page of oil news everyday. Bill Krohn took on that beat when he arrived in town." He soon proved that he was very much a part of the excitement in that era. Though he was not identified as Jewish when he first arrived in town, it soon became clear that he definitely was. Drawing on his background, according to Walter Neustadt Jr., a fourth generation Jewish resident of Ardmore, "Krohn greeted people on the street with the expression 'Sholem Alechem.' In due course Bill educated people to respond with the phrase 'Alechem Sholem.'" Not only did he offer this traditional Hebrew greeting, Krohn organized a Sholem Alechem society. "This imaginative order," according to an oil producer, "was formed in the lobby of an Ardmore hotel, where a group of oil boys would frequently put a new arrival through an improvised ceremonial in order to collect cigars as dues." Krohn noted the following, "This nondescript lodge gained considerable favor and supplied enjoyable mirth among its participants, who decided that if molded into a bona fide organization, it could raise the esprit de corps among the oil men." In the 1960s, I met one of the old time geologists, Frank Gouin, a 50 year veteran from the Ardmore area. Gouin knew Krohn well and for several years watched as he used his friendliness to welcome oil men visiting and operating in and around the area. Gouin observed that "Bill would boom out 'Sholem Alechem' to individuals whom he had not seen before. If they failed to answer, he would teach them the lingo and then bring them over to the local confectionery store for a raspberry soda. His enthusiasm created a wonderful atmosphere." THE SHALOM ALECHEM Oil Field received its name from Bill Krohn in one of two ways. The day after the first well was discovered, Bill named the field Sholem Alechem in his oil column in the local paper. "The name stuck," according to Louis Fischl, a local attorney. "Frequently an oil field assumed the name of the nearest town, but the initial well of this field was not adjacent to any municipality so Krohn's title was accepted by the existing oil agencies." Walter Neustadt Jr., a descendant of the field's owners, offered this second version. "Bill Krohn was an excellent reporter and was extremely well-liked by the oilmen in that district. On the night oil began to flow from the discovery well, Bill was on the rig floor with the drillers and the observers so he could have first-hand information to pass on to his readers. Because of his popularity among the entire oil fraternity and because of his presence right when the oil shot into the sky, the well was named 'Sholem Alechem.'" As more wells were drilled in the area, the title "Sholem Alechem" was officially ascribed to the entire field. The flow of oil there only continues to grow to this day. In 1926 Bill established the Krohn Oil Review, a monthly trade publication. In those pages he placed his cartoon character Pete Roleum with an oil can on his head. Since he knew the oil producers so well, Krohn was able to get inside news on the fields. Moreover, he loved to provide oil gossip as a way of bringing more readers to his publications. In 1927 Bill was pleased that the Sholem Alechem International Oil Fraternity held its fourth annual convention in Ardmore. The grand crown block (president) of the fraternity, Lloyd Noble, became one of the leading oil producers in the US before and during World War II. Expanding his journalistic career, in 1931 Bill wrote a major essay on governor Bill Murray of Oklahoma. His work on the governor provided Bill with the platform to run for Congress in 1932. An early advocate of Native American rights, he called for the state of Oklahoma to turn over funds to the Choctaw and Apache tribes. He did not get elected. From the early '40s to his death in 1967, Bill was an oilman himself, in southern Illinois. I spoke to him a few months before his death, and he told me, "Chaplain Geffen, the discovery of the Sholem Alechem Oil Field will always be one of the great moments of my life."