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September 19, 1996

Old newspapers from anywhere hold a special fascination for me, but those I enjoy the most are the ones with a Noble county connection. The other day Tolbert and Barbara St.Clair showed me their copy of the March 12, 1917, edition of The Billings News, and it has provided a great deal of interesting reading. L. C. Brown was editor-publisher of the six-page newspaper, which appeared every Friday. Tolbert has kept this copy of the old paper all these years because it contains a detailed obituary of his great-grandfather, Samuel St.Clair, an authentic oil industry pioneer who became a resident of Billings in 1902. John St.Clair also is a great-grandson.

In 1917, most small town newspapers accepted display advertising for their front pages, and on that particular day The News, which had a six-column wide format, carried three-column ads from Howard Collins' ready to wear shop, Sanford-Hammer Drug Co. and Donley's Jewelry Store, which was located in the drug store. Those ads were stacked vertically and occupied the entire right hand side of the front page. Stories in the upper left quarter of the page dealt with the intense oil activity underway in the Billings area at that time, including a notice that H.C.K. Co. of Perry had "timbers on the ground for a rig on the J. C. Deal farm, NW 24-23-2." The H.C.K. Co. was organized by John A. Hansen, then president of the Perry Bank of Commerce; prominent Perry attorney P. W Cress; and John Knox of Knox & Stout Clothing Co., which eventually became the Famous Department Store.

But the lower left quarter of the front page contained detailed obituary notices. One of these concerned Tolbert's ancestor, Samuel St.Clair, who died at the age of 87 in Enid. During his lifetime he was a participant in some of the most interesting episodes in the early history of this country. The story related that Mr. St.Clair was born November 20, 1829, in Westmooreland county, Pennsylvania, and was reared there. He served throughout the Civil War in Company D, 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. After the war he farmed and entered the mercantile business in Iowa, then moved to Billings in 1902.

The newspaper article, with punctuation and sentence structure repeated intact, went on: "Mr. St.Clair was a pioneer in the oil business, taking the contract and drilled the first well at Titusville, Pa., which was drilled for the purpose of securing oil. Oil had been discovered in a well drilled for the purpose of obtaining salt, just previous, being the original Drake well. When Drake let the contract to (Mr. St.Clair) for an oil well, which was drilled until oil was found in considerable quantities. He followed the business of drilling until he enlisted in the Army, and again followed it for several months after the close of the war."

Thus he played a key role in the birth of the oil business in this country, long before development of the automobile and the industrial revolution. Discovery of the underground energy resources was important at the time, but that was before the tremendous international demand that followed the industrial revolution and the development of the automobile. In the mid-1860s, few observers foresaw what was to happen after the Titusville discovery in the well drilled by Samuel St.Clair.

Mr. St.Clair and his wife, Rachel, had seven children, although two died in infancy. Surviving him were two sons, H. E. St.Clair of Perry, grandfather of Tolbert and John; and J. F. St.Clair of Los Angeles; three daughters, Mrs. Robert Moncrieff of Enid, Mrs. J. F. Faris of Billings, and Mrs. M. F Beerman of Ft. Collins, Colorado. At the time of his death in 1917, the old gentleman also had 21 grandchildren and five greatgrandchildren. While in the Billings community, Mr. and Mrs. St.Clair made their home east of Billings. They later moved to Enid, but because of his declining health they lived with their daughter, Mrs. Faris, at Billings for a few months before his death.

Thanks to Tolbert and Barbara for passing along this interesting information about one of our early day Noble county residents. His life story could be developed into a fascinating movie scenario or historical novel.

And to wrap up today's column, Bill Haynes offers this solution to the local webworm problem: Mix one cup of dishwasher detergent with two gallons of water and spray directly onto the webs. Ordinary insecticides are oil based and will not penetrate the webs, but this mixture will work because it is water based, Bill says. Any brand of dishwasher detergent will do the job. Bill says Ken Schuermann passed the recipe on to him, and he has had good results with it.