May has more stories to tell about Lambton’s Hard Oilers

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Author Gary May has updated his book Hard Oiler with new stories on the people who opened Lambton's oil fields. He'll be at Petrolia Discovery starting at 10 am Saturday.

Gary May had more stories to tell about Lambton County’s hard oilers.

The former London Free Press reporter who worked in Sarnia wrote what is considered one of the most detailed accounts of the opening of Lambton’s oil fields. It’s called Hard Oilers.

The book went out of print two or three years ago but May was still getting requests for copies. So, he approached his former publishing company to see if they would be interested in reprinting the book if he updated it and added more stories.

The company declined. May, who writes family history books now, decided to publish it on his own through his own publishing company.

The book isn’t simply a reissue; May has found more stories about the Lambton County residents who worked in the oil fields and then went around the world to teach others how to pull oil from the ground. May says he was able to dig deeper into the Hard Oilers’ work in Trinadad and he also found a fascinating story about a family who went to Europe to make their fortune.

The Vansickle family left the Oil Springs/Petrolia are and went to where they set up successful oil businesses in Romania and Austria, says May.

“It was very successful, up to the time of the Second World War, when Hitler took over production and the operation of the company,” says May. “Keith Vansickle was very upset to discover that his oil was being used by the Nazis to the fight the British and their allies. So, he actually joined the British military and worked in North Africa during the war, drilling for for water to help the British military defeat the Nazis.”

After the war, Vansickle went back to Vienna to take the reins of this company back, only to find out it was in Soviet territory and the communists had taken it over.

“He had a fight that lasted for many years to attempt to get back control of the company. And he actually was one of the few people – Westerners – who were successful in getting compensation from the Soviets for the oil that they took over the years from him. And he then rebuilt the company under his own name and turned over the company eventually to his son, James, who only sold it in the late 1990s”

May believes some of Vansickle’s tenacity to get compensation from the Soviets was bred in the oil fields of Lambton County.

“There was a level of toughness that came with being from Central Lambton county that the Hard Oilers had; they they took the name to heart. They were very hard individuals who, when they saw something that they wanted, they went out and got it. And they fought tenaciously to overcome all sorts of barriers; physical barriers, social barriers, and political barriers and in many cases, they simply did not give up.”

May also was able to correct an historic error in the new edition. At the time he wrote the original book, Hugh Nixon Shaw was credited with the first oil gusher but recent research at the Oil Museum of Canada clarified it was actually John Shaw. The new book gives John Shaw the proper credit.

The book also takes a look at the industry in light of the current concerns about oil’s impact on the environment.

“The world is a lot more tuned into environmental issues than it was 20 some years ago. And I know there has been a lot of controversy, especially in relation to the the oil sands in Alberta, but generally about the pollution that is created by by petroleum and natural gas. And so, I tried to address that a little bit in the in the book, making references to what’s happening in terms of the world slowly moving away from petroleum, and into other sources of energy.

“I think there’s more of an acknowledgement of petroleum, environmental impact, and the sorts of things that we as human beings are trying to do to, to alleviate those that that pollution,” he says.

May’s second edition of Hard Oiler is available at The Bookkeeper in Sarnia and will be available at the Oil Museum of Canada when it reopens after renovations this summer.

He’s also appearing at an event in Petrolia at Petrolia Discovery Saturday. The foundation is holding an Antique and Unique Sale. May will be on site from 10 am to 3 pm.