Michael Late Benedum Chapter

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Michael Benedum

"The Great Wildcatter"

Michael Late Benedum

Michael Late Benedum, “The Great Wildcatter,” was born July 16, 1869 in Bridgeport, WV, one of five surviving children of Emanuel and Caroline Southworth Benedum. His father, “Squire Benedum,” owned a general store, was also a woodworker, mayor of the town and Justice of the Peace.

Michael Benedum’s entire boyhood was spent in Bridgeport. As a youth, he worked in several area flour mills and as sales agent for a milling machinery company.

On a hot summer morning in the year 1890, a train sped across the West Virginia countryside between Clarksburg and Parkersburg.  On that train sat a tall, thin young man of 20 years old bound for Parkersburg to find a job.  When the train stopped at the Gregory's Run Station, an older man with a flowing mustache boarded.

As the man mopped the dust from his face and looked for a seat on the crowded train he felt a tug at his sleeve.  "Mister, won't you please take my seat?"

The forty-five minutes between Wilsonburg and West Union passed quickly while the two conversed.  As the train approached West Union, the older man's destination, he remarked, "I don't believe you"ve told me your name?"

"Mike Benedum," replied the young man.

"Son," said the older acquaintance, "How would you like to learn something about my business?"

"What is it?" asked Benedum.

"The oil business.  My name is John Worthington.  I am the General Superintendent of the South Penn Oil Company.  Now if you have no particular reason for going to Parkersburg, maybe you would like to stop here with me.  I think I can find a job for you."

"Well," said young Benedum, "I'm looking for a job.  What is the future in it?  If you think there is one, I'll get off?"

Worthington smiled quietly, "Oh yes, there's a future!"

"Thank you, sir.  I'll do it," replied Benedum.

From that chance meeting was born one of the greatest success stories ever told in the oil business.  For the next sixty years, Mike Benedum would successfully search for oil across four continents and become known as "The Great Wildcatter."

Early in Benedum's career with South Penn Oil Company, he was made a landman.  John Worthington explained briefly how the instrument worked and instructed his two regular landmen, Charlie Parr and Newton Wilkinson, to take Mike out and "show him the ropes."

Parr and Wilkinson had been working for several weeks on a number of tracts in highly competitive Tyler County, West Virginia, but had been unsuccessful at leasing because one influential farmer whom they called the "king bee," had refused to sign.  The two gave Benedum the list of names, some maps and rental money and sent him on his way.  The next morning - to the surprise of Parr and Wilkinson, Mike Benedum walked into the office with a lease from everyone on the list.

Benedum explained that he had changed the twenty and fifty dollar bills into one dollar bills.  He explained, "A hundred one dollar bills always looks like a powerful lot more money to me than five twenties or two fifties."  But perhaps more importantly, Mike related to the landowners interests, answered their questions patiently and dealt with them in a fair and honest manner.

Benedum rose rapidly to become, in 1892, Assistant General Land Agent. In 1896 he left South Penn to strike out as an independent producer with his brother Charles. At this time he met Joseph Trees, who was to become a life-long partner in his enterprises.

On May 17, 1896, he was married to Sarah Lantz in Monongalia County. A son, Claude Worthington, was born in 1897 in Cameron, W.V.

Meanwhile, his interests had expanded to include banking and manufacturing, and the legend was begun.

On September 17, 1900, Michael Benedum and Joseph Trees formed the Benedum-Trees Oil Company and, in 1907, moved offices to Pittsburgh where their oil and gas interests continued to flourish. By the mid-1920’s Michael Benedum was ruler of a complex industrial empire and chief stockholder in half a dozen enterprises. From that time until his death his empire continued to expand, with oil fields developed not only in many states of the U.S. but also in foreign countries.

Benedum drilled his first well in the Cow Run sands of West Virginia. It has been said that there wasn’t a day in his life since then that he wasn’t drilling somewhere in the world. Benedum wildcatted all over the United States and Mexico, making the first big oil strike in Illinois. He also proved the Louisiana Caddo field and helped develop important fields in Texas. He discovered Colombia’s famous “Tropical” field, was the first to probe Romania’s Ploesti fields, and is credited with finds in Canada and the Philippines. His discovery in the West Texas field 50 miles southeast of Midland, the Benedum Field, is the only field named after him. The vision that conceived the possibilities of the Permian Basin was Michael Benedum.

From 1890 to 1950, he developed companies and corporate holdings to include, Transcontinental Oil Co. (1919), Plymouth Oil Co. (1923), Hiawatha Oil and Gas Co. (1926), Big Lake Oilfield, (1926) and Bentex Oil Corp. (1936). His storage, transportation, marketing, refining, and conservation practices led to the Interstate Oil Compact Commission in 1933.

Michael Benedum often declared, “I would rather find an oil field in West Virginia that did not bring me one dollar of profit than to discover one elsewhere that brought millions."

He retained a lifelong affection for West Virginia, Bridgeport, Clarksburg and Harrison County which he expressed through many philanthropic projects. The first was the restoration and beautification of Bridgeport Cemeteries.

Next came the construction of a new Methodist Church, completed in 1953 and known as one of the most beautiful small churches in the country. Its outstanding feature in a magnificent stained glass window in memory of Michael and Sarah’s beloved only son and child, Claude, who died of pneumonia in 1918 at age 21 while in military service.

The most recent project was a Civic Center for the citizens of Bridgeport, located at the site of the home where Michael Benedum was born and reared.

In 1944, Michael and Sarah established the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, another memorial to their son, for the purpose of furthering higher education for deserving West Virginia boys and girls in addition to aiding charitable, religious, scientific and educational institutions.

Michael Benedum’s philanthropies encompassed a wide range of interests, always for the benefit of his fellow man. His concern for the welfare of others was part of the man, not the legend. To all who came in contact with him, he was a very “human” being, remembered with warmth and esteem.

In his lifetime, Michael Benedum was the recipient of numerous honors – among them the title “Oil Man of the Century: conferred upon him by the city of Pittsburgh in 1955, and in 1956 “Foremost Oil Pioneer of All Time” by the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. There were also several honorary college degrees, but he declared on the dedication of Benedum Airport in Clarksburg that none of the many honors he had received “meant one-half so much to me as this expression of respect and good will of the people of Clarksburg and Harrison County.”

Michael Late Benedum, the greatest wildcatter of them all, died in 1959.

In the name and spirit of Michael Late Benedum we proudly dedicate our Chapter.

Much of the information used in this biography was taken directly or paraphrased from the book, The Great Wildcatter, by Sam T. Mallison, Education Foundation of West Virginia, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia, 1953, 528 pp.


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