It cut through the summer night sky like a star fallen to earth, its blue-white flame casting deep unnatural shadows for miles. "I have lived in Petaluma for forty-five years. It was the grandest thing I ever saw," said Frank Lippitt.

"Put me down as saying we are just on the verge of a new era of prosperity," Richard Skinner told the Petaluma Morning Courier. "The striking of gas will put Petaluma before the world as the ideal manufacturing center." Forget the eggs, forget the chickens; soon there will be oil rigs on every farm and field and everyone in town will be as rich as the McNears. Richer.

This is the first of three articles on the Sonoma County speculation oil boom in the early 20th century. Although this installment covers just a single oil field near Petaluma, during those years petroleum prospecting companies were sprouting overnight with their "experts" rushing everywhere, signing oil leases on lands from Occidental to Bennett Valley to Two Rock. So also forget the hops and the grapes, the dairies and the orchards - no more Redwood Empire but rather an Empire of Oil.

But these particular stories are really not about the search for oil. They are about stock swindles and fraud scams - crimes which not only occurred here, but apparently were endemic to oil prospecting all over the country at the time. Then there are related mysteries about how much the local bigwigs and newspaper editors knew about what was really going on and chose to keep quiet. As found below, the Petaluma Daily Morning Courier seemed particularly eager to keep a lid on news that may have raised eyebrows.

Andy Ducker and his family had a 363 acre sheep ranch three-quarters of a mile east of (what's now) Petaluma Adobe State Park. It was never explained what set the wheels in motion but we can assume in 1907 Andy told someone about the thick black gunk seeping out of the ground in a few places. In August a man named Larrimore showed up and he signed a lease to allow drilling on part of his property. If they didn't strike oil at least he'd get a free water well out of the deal, the 68 year-old rancher said.

Within weeks, prospects were starting to look like a sure thing. "At a depth of only about sixty feet the men have come across strong indications of oil," wrote the Argus-Courier. "Blue soil, which has a strong petroleum smell is being brought up by the auger and there is such a flow of gas that one man was put out of commission on Tuesday."

The rest of this article can be read at the website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at

- Jeff Elliott

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