Author needs help with foreign drillers book


Windsor-based author Gary May is looking for help as he compiles the stories of Lambton County’s foreign drillers.

May wants you to scour family records and memories in search of materials he hopes can add detail and perspective to the story.

Hundreds of Lambton County oil workers fanned out across the globe over a period of some 70 years – from the 1870s onwards – to help explore for and develop oil resources. May says there has been little written about the overseas exploits of the foreign drillers.

The first overseas tour began in late 1873 when four Petrolia men headed off to the island of Java in Indonesia. As far as the sendoff party that bade them farewell at the Petrolia train station were concerned, “they might as well have been headed to the dark side of the moon,” May said. “No one knew anything about where they were going. No one even knew if they would arrive safely.”

And while that first group met with only limited success, many others followed in their footsteps, creating a modern petroleum industry in places as far-flung as Eastern Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Trinidad and South America. Many Canadians also found themselves wildcatting for oil in Texas, Oklahoma and California when those resources were discovered.

May says William Henry McGarvey was “the king of foreign drillers.” The former reeve and mayor of Petrolia headed for Germany in the early 1880s and then made his fortune in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. McGarvey helped to make Galicia the third-largest oil-producing region in the world by 1900, behind the United States and Russia, says May.

Much of May’s next book will be based on McGarvey with details of other successful foreign drillers, such as the Fair brothers, the Perkins and Nicklos families, Charles Wallen and Bill Gillespie.

While May said he has a good deal of information already, he hopes area residents who might be descended from the foreign drillers can scour their own records to see what they might be able to add to his research.

“Realistically, I expect the book to be ready for publication in 2016,” he says.

If you have a story to share with May, you can contact him at [email protected] or through