ST. ELMO - Wright's Corner sits in the middle of the Loudon oil field, the third largest in Illinois, midway between St. Elmo to the south and Beecher City to the north.
It was here in 1937, on a patch of land that otherwise would have been planted in corn or soybeans, the Carter Oil Co., now the Exxon Mobil Corp., produced the first oil well in Fayette County.
Until Carter arrived in the area from Oklahoma, wells were drilled using the old cable tool drilling technique which basically uses a pipe on the end of a cable that punched holes in the ground. It was a slow, inefficient and cumbersome process.
The Oklahomans brought with them a large rotary drilling rig, powered by two diesel engines that reduced the standard drilling time from three weeks to four days. They run 24 hours a day, and at night, they are lit up like the gantry at Cape Canaveral the night before a launch.
Since its discovery in 1937, the Loudon field has yielded slightly more than 400 million barrels of oil, according to Bryan Huff of the U.S. Geologic Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The field is still producing 500,000 barrels of oil a year," Huff said. Companies still there today are drilling new wells and shutting down older ones in an effort to become more efficient. In the 70 or so years the field has been in production, 2,923 wells have been drilled and 1,389 of those are still operating."
David Belden of Belden Enterprises in St. Elmo works for the oil business started by his father "Deke" Belden in the early 1950s.
"The dizzying prospect of that much oil brought a lot of people to the area, including roughnecks, drillers and suppliers," Belden said. "Suddenly, new houses were going up, new buildings were being built, tank farms and pipeline facilities being constructed.
"As a result of all the activity, several taverns sprang up and with them came the attendant problems, and so I guess it came as little surprise when the township soon voted itself dry. I wasn't born then, but you hear a lot of stories."
Belden explained that working conditions back then were much different than today.
"Many times, drilling operations of the past were more dependent on the weather than we are today," Belden said. "You can go only so far in mud. Nowadays, the oil and chip roads throughout the county are far better than negotiating the mud roads of the past. We can get anywhere we need to go now. If we need to build a road to get the rig from the county road to the site, which is often in the middle of a cornfield, we build it."
He said that many things have changed since his father started the business.
"In the early days, we relied on
e-logs (electric logs), for example, to provide us with hole data, about the nature of the formations we had encountered during the drilling process, and geologist of the day did surprising well using the little information they got from them.
"By comparison, we can take a 3-D image of the underlying formations today, which gives us a lot more data than we ever had before," Belden explained. "It's like comparing the information a doctor gets from
X-rays with the data they get from the newest medical scanners."
He said the information is more detailed and thus more useful.
"It still doesn't tell you if there is oil at the proposed site, however, it does indicate the nature of the formation you are looking at, and based on that data, we make the determination of whether or not to drill, which is still the only way we are going to find oil."
Belden and Huff believe the future holds even better technology that will help them in the search for even more oil to help meet the seemingly unquenchable needs of the nation.