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Any time of year, visitors can take the Fairbank Driving Tour of Sculpture in the comfort of their vehicles and at their own speed.

Before beginning the driving tour, it’s a good idea to first visit the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs to get an overview of the oil history. The museum also distributes handouts telling you how to tune your car radio to hear the narrative for the driving tour. The radio narrative is available from May 1 to October 1.

Sculptures on the tour visually tell the story of how the Lambton County oilmen produced and shipped the crude through many earlier decades. They depict men as they worked and they bring the past to life. Each sculpture is modelled after a real person and they are grouped like actors in a play. Together they make vignettes of men performing specific tasks.

The setting is the authentic oil field that still uses the technology of the 1860s. The “metal men” and six life-sized horses are the surprising folk art creations of Murray Watson, who owns and operates Watson Welding in Watford, Ontario.

Along the tour, you can hop out of your car and check out exhibits and the barn mural. You may want to bring a camera too.

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Checking the Oil Level

Take Kelly Road exit from Oil Museum and turn right.

Loyd Woods, who owned and operated this parcel of land for many years, checks the level of his oil. Once a week, this oil is piped to a central shipping tank. From there it’s trucked to Imperial Oil in Sarnia for refining. Charlie Fairbank bought this piece of property from Woods around 2009.

The Imperial Oil Receiving Station

Turn left from Kelly Rd. on to Gum Bed Line

Photo: Willy Waterton

A team of horses wait patiently while crude is unloaded from an 8-barrel wooden tank to an underground tank with a 100-barrel capacity. Garnet Byers, an oil producer, monitors the shipment.

The receiving station was always an easy distance for horses to draw the heavy load. Sam checks the purity of the oil by taking a sample in a graduated cylinder. Sometimes, not all of the water has been separated from the oil.

Inside the receiving station, a sculpture of Tom Evoy greets the oil producers. He was the receiving station operator, just like his father had been. Sitting at the desk is Henry Wheeler giving the oil producers a receipt for their oil. Henry started as an oilman at Fairbank Oil in 1917 and continued up until 1970.

The receiving station also has a 5-horsepower motor pump for transferring crude oil to the railway cars. (A tank car sits on the former railway right-of-way just west of the museum.) The rail cars would be loaded and shipped to the station on the 12th Line of Enniskillen Township, north of Petrolia and now called LaSalle Road.

Although the railway to Oil Springs closed in 1960, the receiving station continued to be used by the trucking firm Harold Marcus Ltd. to transport the crude to Imperial Oil in Sarnia. In 1974, the receiving station closed, marking the end of an era. This is the only remaining Imperial Oil receiving station. Fairbank Oil has continually shipped crude to Imperial Oil since 1880.

Transporting Oil to the Receiving Station

Photo: Carol Graham

Irv Henderson guides a team of horses and an 8-barrel load of oil. He worked for Fairbank Oil from the 1960s through to the mid-1990s. These tanks were used until about 1975 but by that time, tractors, not horses, pulled the load. The tanks came in various sizes and each one bears a stamp with its capacity. When fully loaded, they would carry about one and a half tons (1,360 kg) of oil.

The Powerhouse or Rig

Photo: Patricia McGee

Originally, the pump in each oil well was powered by an individual steam engine. In 1863, John Henry Fairbank devised the much more economic jerker line system in Oil Springs and it quickly spread throughout the area.

It connected several wells and allowed them to share one central steam engine. When electricity arrived here in 1918, a 5-horsepower motor in the rig replaced steam. This is The James Rig, one of six powerhouses on the property that runs continuously day and night.

Inside the rig, there is a 12-metre belt that loops like a giant rubber band around a bull wheel (2.4 metres in diameter) and the pulley with its motor. As it turns, the bullwheel uses a pinion gear to drive two large spur gears. These gears then turn two cranks, which act like a bicycle pedals, causing the Pitman arms to move back and forth.

From here, the power moves outside to a field wheel where it is shifted horizontally through the jerker line system.

The Underground Storage Tank

(This is visible if you are on foot. When facing the rig door, turn left, and walk to the far side of the building.) The underground oil storage tank just east of the James Rig dates back to the 1880s and is still used today. These deep wooden tanks are made waterproof by packing the outer walls with blue clay. Every month, a big oil tanker operated by Harold Marcus Ltd. removes the load of 210 barrels by attaching a suction hose to the pump on the tanker.

Pumping Oil From Storage Tank

Photo: Carol Graham

Raymond “Bucky” Mitchell is loading oil from a day tank where the well’s daily production of oil and water is separated; the water drains through a siphon and the oil is stored underground. From here, the oil is transported to the receiving station. Bucky worked at Fairbank Oil from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

Thomas The Tank Engine

To amuse his young sons, Charlie Fairbank decided to transform an oil tank into Thomas the Tank Engine. Renée Ethier, of Petrolia, painted it.

The Three-Pole Derrick


A three-pole derrick used to be erected over each well. In Oil Springs and Petrolia there were hundreds of wells and the landscape used to look like a whole forest of three-pole derricks.

The derricks were used to service each well. Every 18 months, the rods and the pump in the well need to be hauled out, checked and repaired or replaced. Sections of rods and pipe, of about seven meters in length, are uncoupled by the wrencher.

The derrick has pulley at the top connected to a team of horses. As the horses pulled forward, all the rods and pipes were hoisted from the well.

Photo: Al Hayward

Here you see Alex Fairbank, the younger son of Charlie Fairbank and Pat McGee, sitting on the pumpkit wagon with the family dog, Mozart. The pumpkit has all the pulleys, cables and equipment needed to service the well. Albert Baines, of Baines Machine and Repair in Petrolia, climbs the derrick. It is his job to take the pulley and cable to the top of the derrick and hook the pulley into a clevis.

Charlie Fairbank Jr. in the yellow shirt is the elder son of Charlie and Pat and is shown here as the assistant.

In the white shirt holding a wrench is Bob Cochrane, of Cairnlins Resources, who has the job of screwing and unscrewing the pipes and rods as they are removed from the well.

Photo: Larry Cornelis

The teamster directing the horses is David Taylor, the manager of Fairbank Oil Fields. At the west end of this display is foreman Dan Whiting standing on top of an underground storage tank. He is checking to see how much oil it contains by “floating the tank”. He takes a tin can with a string attached, fills the can with oil and lets it sink until it stops at water level. Each 2.5 cm. of oil is five barrels.

Pulling Machines

The portable pulling machines stored at this site began to service the wells in the 1950s after windstorms blew down many of the three-pole derricks in Oil Springs. The blue pulling machine was manufactured by Murray Bradley of Oil Well Supply in Petrolia. It is powered by a “one-lunger”, a single cylinder gas engine. As you drive through the tour of the oil field, you may see other service rigs operating.

Turn left on Gypsie Flats Rd. to continue the tour.

The Modern Pumpjack

This modern pumpjack, of the 1940s, is entirely made of metal, unlike the wooden pumpblocks built by the pioneers. The man checking the well is Elwood Ayrheart who worked at Fairbank Oil during the 1930s and ’40s. He also owned an oil property on the opposite side of Gypsie Flats Road.

The 1862 Shaw Well, Canada’s First Gusher

In the fall of 2007, Charlie Fairbank added three three-pole derricks to the flats where John Shaw hit Canada’s first gusher in 1862. Shaw dug his well to about 21 metres, then, with a spring pole, he bored another 53 metres. The gusher astonished everyone and a vast quantity of oil flowed down Black Creek for four days before the well was brought under control.

This was no ordinary well; it was a Flowing Well. It produced an astonishing 35,000 barrels in 10 months. This is more than Fairbank Oil’s 350 wells produce in an entire year today! Shaw was offered $10,000 for his well and he refused to sell. Atop one of the derricks is Charlie’s brother-in-law, Phil Hein, a former mountain climbing guide.

This is the Bradley Well, which was also an 1862 Flowing Well.

Turn left on to Oil Springs Line and then left again on Duryee Street.

Bullwheel at Duryee St Entrance to Fairbank Oil Fields

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Fairbank Oil in 2011, this bullwheel was created for the entrance. It’s a bullwheel just like the ones used for powering the jerker line system to pump the oil. It measures 2.4 metres and was built from white ash by Dave McCann of Alvinston. The blacksmithing was designed and forged by James Wallace of Sharp’s Creek Forge in Goderich.

Sculptures at Duryee St Entrance to Fairbank Oil Fields

At the Duryee Street entrance are sculptures of founder, John Henry Fairbank and his son, Major Charles Fairbank in his World War One uniform, sitting on a horse. The depiction of Major Fairbank was a direct copy of a photograph.

Barn Mural at Fairbank Oil Fields

2558 Duryee St.

This much-photographed mural on the barn depicts an early trademark of the VanTuyl and Fairbank Hardware store in Petrolia, established in 1865. It shows a man driving a team of horses pulling an oil wagon and the mural can be seen from the main street of Oil Springs.

Charlie came up with the idea after reading the Joyce Carey novel, The Horse’s Mouth, where a collection of artists and friends assembled to joyfully paint a mural. He decided to gather friends and family to paint this mural together.

Artist Anne Marsh Evans, formerly of Petrolia, converted the hardware store logo into a grid of one-foot squares, sketched the image, and created a “paint by number” wall on the barn. Charlie and friend Vince Lyons set up the grid with string. The scaffolding went up and everyone at the party painted one square.

It was the summer of 1981, exactly 120 years after J.H. Fairbank began Fairbank Oil. When the mural was finished, the gang all sat down to dine on lamb roasted on an open fire.

The image on the barn was copied elsewhere over the years and can be seen painted above the Oil Springs Post Office.

The Pioneer Pumpblocks or Pumpjacks

Photo: Al Hayward

An oil well is much like a water well; both need a pump to get the liquid to surface. The oil pioneers easily adapted the water pump idea to create the pumpblock, later known as the pumpjack in this area.

Oak and maple were plentiful, so these pumpjacks were easily made. The wooden horizontal walking beam sits atop the wooden Samson post and the two pieces work together like a teeter-totter with a fulcrum. As the walking beam nods up and down, it lifts and lowers a valve assembly 116 metres below. Oil and water enter the valve and get pushed up to the wellhead.

From here, it flows into a pipe and is collected in a tank. Power for the pumpblock comes from the engine in the powerhouse, known as a rig. Numerous pumpblocks can share one engine. The pumpblocks, like the modern pumpjacks, never cease; they operate day in and day out.

Driving Tour Map With Stops