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REETINGS FROM OIL COUNTRY         

                          Greetings from Oil Country is an ongoing project which centers on the postcard image of a burning oil tank.

                          When I found the first postcard of the Olean oil tank fire, I simply thought of it as an incredibly interesting piece of ephemera –
                          the presence of the spectators in their fine clothes and the contrast it posed to the industrial accident. But then I came across
                          another postcard of the same burning oil tank, this time captioned as Bradford, PA. I became intrigued and started looking for
                          additional postcards. To my amazement, I kept finding the same exact image over and over in different printings labeled as
                          different cities.

                          My research expanded: contacting historians and examining old newspapers in search for the date and location of the fire,
                          learning about the different eras in the history of postcard production, and continually acquiring every unique postcard of
                          the image I could find. My collection also expanded. I discovered different views of the same fire and numerous postcards
                          of other burning oil tanks – many of which had crowds of spectators.  I learned that in the age of the “oil boom”, excursion
                          trains would take "tourists" on Sundays to visit the tank fires. 1 There was even enough tourist interest in these events that
                          pieces of souvenir china were produced – miniature pitchers and platters with decaled images of oil fires.

                          At the present moment, I’ve discovered 64 printings of the postcard with captions declaring the event to have occurred in
                          15 different cities in 5 different states: Wellsville, NY; Bolivar, NY; Olean, NY; Bradford, PA; Kane, PA; Warren, PA;
                          Titusville, PA; Oil City, PA; Clarion, PA; Franklin, PA; Findlay, OH; Lima, OH; Tulsa, OK; Muskogee, OK; and
                          Beaumont, TX. Postmarked dates have ranged from 1904 to 1937.

                          My investigation into these postcards has raised a lot of questions about the relationships between ephemera, history, and
                          authenticity.  The postcard is often preserved and presented as an item of history – whether in a private collection, published
                          in books 2 or in institutional collections.  However, as shown in this project and my research, captioned information may be
                          suspect. I think what particularly strikes me about this image and this instance of misrepresentation 3 is its range, from New
                          York and Pennsylvania to Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, and its transformation from a specific scene with specific people to a
                          generic view representing nearly any city’s oil tank fire.

                          In displaying Greetings from Oil Country, I loosely plotted all of the postcard images in a grid-map according to the cities they’re
                          labeled as being from, near, or between.  One group of postcards to the left stands alone as they are from unidentified locations. 
                          As I discover any additional unique printings of the postcard, they will be added to the “map”.



                                                    1 Excursion train information from correspondence with Jeff A. Spencer, petroleum geologist and oil field historian. 
                                   2 Through my research, I discovered that this postcard has been published in 3 different Images of America books.  In The Bradford Oil Refinery, the image’s caption reads:
                                          “This oil tank, containing 35,000 barrels of oil, caught fire when struck by lightning (sic) in 1906.” (pg.18) In Around Bradford, Volume II, the caption for the
                                           image dates it as circa 1890 (pg.26).  And in Ohio Oil and Gas, the image is captioned as a “burning oil storage tank near Lima.” (pg. 34)
                                    3 I’ve found other instances of oil tank fire postcards that are listed as different cities, but always in much closer proximity to each other and often in at least the same state.
                                    4  http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F60915F7355E10738DDDA00A94DF405B8785F0D3


                          ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

                          Throughout my research, I still have not discovered direct evidence proving the location and date of the fire. From the
                          postcards themselves, the most definitive pieces of information I have contradict each other. In the black and white
                          “Greetings from Oil Country” card from Bradford, PA (postmarked 1904), the name Frank Robbins is in the lower left
                          corner of the image. He was known for his photographs throughout the oil country of New York and Pennsylvania and
                          publishing series of stereoscopic “Views of the Penna. Oil Region.” However, in a supplemental card I own showing what
                          appears to be the same fire, but a different view, the copyright states “1901 Don Seeley” and lists the location to be
                          Olean, NY.

                          In reading through dozens of turn-of-the-century newspaper articles about oil tank fires, the closest story I’ve found
                          was from the New York Times on July 29, 1897. The article mentions several things which leads me to believe this could
                          possibly be the same fire in the postcard: only one tank was burning, the number of barrels in the tank, several men made
                          their escape “being obliged to seek safety by jumping into a tree and going down the trunk,” 4 and the fact that the fire
                          occurred in the summer-time.  The postcard image always states 35,000 barrels whenever the size of the tank is mentioned
                          and shows a tree with full foliage near the tank.  Many of the other tank fires I had read about had more than one burning
                          tank, different sized tanks, or occurred in different seasons.

                          However, even if I can ever discover definitive evidence proving the actual date and location of the fire, it still does not change
                          the interesting fact that at least 14 other cities appropriated this image and used it as a scene from their own town.