Sistersville, WV mushroomed into a boom town overnight with the discovery of oil there in 1891. The rural village of 300 people suddenly had to house 15,000 souls from the massive influx of oil men, drillers, leasers, speculators, camp followers, floaters, wild-catters, and hangers-on. By the end of 1892 164 wells and 55 drilling stages were producing up to 20,500 barrels of oil a day.
A 1936 article from the Cincinnati Enquirer ranked the Ohio River town of Sistersville as one of the wickedest turn-of-the-century towns:
“Houses were even torn down to make room for a drilling derrick. Shacks and tents were thrown together to help house the people; houseboats lined the river banks on both sides of a mile or more up and down the river–moored so closely that one could walk by stepping from one to the other without going ashore–and helping to feed and sleep the people and at the same time furnishing liquor, amusement and entertainment of every kind to suit the taste of those seeking it, for nearly every houseboat was a speakeasy, gambling room or worse.
“Saloons, gambling houses and theaters sprang up over night. One popular saloon was burned down during the night during the Hey-Day and early the following morning before the ruins had cooled and ceased smoking the erection of another building on the site commenced.”
Gib Morgan (1842-1909) was a tool dresser, driller, roustabout and pipe-line laborer. He was never a rich man, he never owned an oil company, he could hardly be considered important at all, except for one thing. Gib Morgan was a brilliant story teller.
Wherever he went, this gypsy oil man carried his stories with him, and left a little piece of himself behind before moving on. We know some of his stories today, both under his own name, and as a portion of the Paul Bunyan tales.
Gib Morgan was already getting noticed during the Civil War for his yarns while a private in the Tenth Pennsylvania Infantry. Because of poor organization at the war department, his company was hunkered down in the same location for months. To help keep up his comrades’ spirits, he passed the time with stories.
Morgan returned home to Emlenton, PA in June, 1864, and began working steadily in Pennsylvania’s Venango County oil fields. He married Mary Ritchey, and they had three children. It was not until his young wife died and their children were adopted out that Gib Morgan began wandering from oil field to oil field.
Oil field crewmen used huge wrenches in the backbreaking work of connecting steam lines or laying pipeline. It was dangerous, it was exhausting, but a drink from the saloon and a trip to the local house of ill repute would ease the pain. As would the levity and camaraderie provided by men like Gib Morgan.
By the time the Pole Cat Well (pictured above) blew the lid off Sistersville, Morgan had worked fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, and his 30 years of tale-telling had earned him the nickname ‘Minstrel of the Oil Fields.’ In the stories he spoke of himself in third person, as in the following tall tale from the boomtimes in Sistersville:
“When he was in West Virginia, Gib Morgan, more as an accommodation to his friends than anything else, put up a boarding house for oil field workers.”
Then word gets out about his delicious buckwheat cakes, and he draws so many oil field workers he’s forced to develop mass production methods:
“He bought a dozen of the largest concrete mixers and steam engines to turn them…Into these mixers his workmen dumped flour and milk and eggs…[the batter] was turned into a pipe line leading to the kitchen. The griddles were bottoms of 43,000-barrel oil tanks, each heated by a gas well underneath it…Seven big strapping men skimmed over the hot surface of each griddle continuously [on sides of bacon fat under their feet]…followed by another crew who handled the batter hoses…
“Another crew with shovels turned the cakes…a fourth took them up and tossed them to the waiters…Melted butter and maple syrup flowed through pipes along the half-mile counters, and at each seat were spigots from which the customer drew…Gib fed twenty-five thousand oil field workers at a time…[He] had to put up a sign: ONLY DRILLERS AND TOOL DRESSERS FED HERE.”
Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields, Mody C. Boatright, ed., Dallas: Texas Folklore Society, 1966
Handbook of American Folklore, by Richard Mercer Dorson, Indiana University Press, 1986
Folksongs and Their Makers, by Henry Glassie, Edward D. Ives, Popular Press, 1971