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Oil in Oneida County?

the Parrish drilling rig
Pioneer Park Historical Complex
The Parrish drilling rig

Before the days of ground penetrating technology and advancements in geological study, people presumed oil could be found almost anywhere as long as a drill could reach deep enough into the earth.

In the early 1900s, an oil executive for Standard Oil named Lloyd Noble was enthusiastic about the possibility of finding oil in north-central Wisconsin. He thought oil reserves could be located deep under the region’s forests.

That prospect was a welcome idea in Oneida County in the late 1920s when the depression took hold. If discovered, oil would bring riches and industry to the Northwoods at a time when sawmills were coming to an end. A group of Rhinelander businessmen hired geologists to search the area for rock that might indicate oil reserves could lie below. Their reports lead to two sites, one near McNaughton and one near Parrish. Without access to modern ground penetrating technology, they could only speculate, drill, and see what happened. A very small drilling rig was set up near McNaughton. The little rig was incapable of driving to depths that might discover oil and it was abandoned after a short time. Locals noted evidence of this site, which could be seen from Highway 47, even years later.

In 1929, a veteran oil prospector from Kansas, H.W. Goebel, came to the Parrish area and speculated oil could be found in southern Oneida and northern Langlade County. This time, a group of businessmen from Antigo founded the Wisconsin Oil and Development Company. They leased 40,000 acres in the Parrish area and proceeded to build a powerhouse and drilling rig near the community of Parrish. After a diligent effort, no oil was ever discovered and once again, the prospect of finding petroleum was abandoned.

In the end, no oil was found in the Northwoods, and modern geologists have determined it wouldn’t be possible to find crude in the depths below our lakes and forests. True enough, not a single drop of oil is produced from the state of Wisconsin.

Even though oil was never found, the time and location were ripe in the 1930s for the production of other types of liquid gold, and a few locals set up a still at the former oil drilling site in Parrish. The location was used to produce illegal moonshine, and so the spot proved to be lucrative after all!

Despite not having any oil in the Northwoods, the Northwoods Petroleum Museum is found just a couple miles north of Three Lakes. It features historic information and artifacts from the petroleum industry, like a collection of vintage gas signs and old gas pumps. This little museum is certainly worth a visit and a hidden gem of our area.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.