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International Heritage Group Tours Oil Springs and Studies Lambton Oil History

Charlie Fairbank, in blue plaid shirt, explains a display of 19th century tools and components that are used within the historic wells at Fairbank Oil.
Photo by Andrew Meyer, County of Lambton.

For the first time in its storied history, Oil Springs attracted an international heritage conference and tour in August 2022.

Heritage experts boarding planes in Poland, Scotland and Spain, to come to this small rural village of 700 souls in Lambton County? Yes! They also came from Texas, Pennsylvania and several parts of Canada.

This alone speaks volumes about the international importance of Oil Springs. They came to see the authentic preserved oil technology operating daily at Fairbank Oil, and the Oil Museum of Canada, the site where James Miller Williams was the first in North America to produce, refine and sell petroleum for lighting lamps.

Oil Springs is beyond being a Lambton County story or even a Canadian one. It’s believed to be internationally significant. Very little early oil technology remains in the world. In the mid-1850s, the world was just beginning to usher in the age of oil. It was a new energy source that would eclipse the age of coal and whale oil.

The tour was part of a three-day conference organized the The International Committee of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH), Fairbank Oil and Lambton County.

Industrial heritage does not involve stately buildings. Instead, it zeroes in on the physical remains of the history of technology and industry. It studies manufacturing and mining sites, and also the infrastructure of power and transportation.

TICCIH is quite influential. It provides technical assessments and advises the UNESCO World Heritage on designations along with the International Council on Monuments and Sites. (ICOMOS).

In 2017, Fairbank Oil and the county’s Oil Museum of Canada jointly applied to Canada’s Tentative List to be considered for world heritage designation. Though unsuccessful, they will apply again when the Tentative List reopens in several years.

Poland, which also has a history of very early oil, is sent four delegates to the conference. They proposed a serial designation of early oil sites for world heritage and were seeing Oil Springs for the first time.

The conference and tour stemmed from a TICCIH thematic study which examined the heritage of the oil industry in a number of countries. Oil Springs was one of the case studies in the 92-page study, and the study was internationally available. At the conference held in Sarnia, heritage experts presented papers and the day-long tour followed on the final day.

A summary report of the conference is being written and is expected to draw much interest from al the oil producing countries. Next steps are yet to be determined but already, Lambton County and Fairbank Oil are planning future discussions with Poland.

Major sponsors of the conference are Imperial Oil in Sarnia, The County of Lambton, and Harold Marcus Ltd. which transport all Ontario oil to Imperial’s Sarnia refinery.