Pauline Schultz has spent most of her ninety-two years keeping the history of Salt Creek Oil Field in Midwest, Wyoming. The field is a nine-by-five-mile patch of land in what her father called “the beaten-est place.” In the 1920s, Salt Creek yielded one fifth of the petroleum produced in the country, and over the decades has provided work for millions of people.
In 1934, Schultz says, she “told everyone, ‘This field is important. Someday, we’ll have a museum.’” A self-described “history nut,” Shultz took notes and stashed memorabilia, and, in 1980, founded the Salt Creek Oil Field Museum. Its eclectic collection includes oil well maps her husband saved, thousands of photos, a 1924 doctor’s office, and The Midwest Reviews, which chronicle the activities of the oil field from 1920 to 1930.
As a curator, her favorite works are a collection of six-by-eight-foot photos of the early years of Salt Creek that were donated by Amoco when the company, a former owner of the field, reached its hundredth anniversary. “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for them,” says Shultz. On a personal level, she favors Early Days at Salt Creek and Teapot Dome, a book by Ed Bille, a friend who helped her with the museum.
The place Shultz has chosen to memorialize was not an easy place to live. “Dad used to say, ‘Why you can see farther and see less; have more cows and less butter; more sheep and less mutton, more gullies and less water than in ANY state in the Union!’”
What Wyoming does have is geologic good fortune. “Coal, oil, gas, uranium, all the wealth is underground,” says Schultz.
Her father, Charles Carl Miller, was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, home of the nation’s first drilled oil well. His uncle taught him to drill, and the skill took Miller around the country. “His knowledge was in demand,” Schultz says. “In the field, Dad was known as ‘Crooked-hole Miller’ because he had learned the technique of how to correct the hole’s direction if the drill bit hit a rock, swerving to the side, going crookedly. He could pull the bit and straighten the drilling hole.”
“People traveled to the oil fields by the thousands when there was a boom. We would just pick up the pieces and go,” says Schultz, who crossed the Mississippi thirteen times before she was ten.
In 1924, her family moved to Midwest, a company town. Shultz estimates there were four thousand derricks there in the 1920s and 1930s. “It was the largest light-oil [meaning it could be used without being refined] field in the world. Oil gushed, sometimes as much as 160 feet high because no one knew how to shut off the wells.”
Her family moved on in 1927, but she returned in 1934 with her husband Walter Schultz, who went to work in the field. In their early years, he had to travel to the boosters, building-sized engines that “boost” oil through a pipeline. She went along, and together they lived in a sheep wagon outfitted for housekeeping. “It was the cutest little house in the world.”
It was a time when the companies owned the houses; you might not have had running water, and the work was hard. “You had to have endurance beyond imagination,” says Schultz, to work around the noxious smells or at temperatures twenty or thirty below zero when the water in the oil would freeze.
Ten to fifteen thousand people lived in Midwest and the surrounding camps when Shultz was a girl; now, she says, the population is fewer than five hundred. Twenty or thirty can do what five hundred people once did, says Shultz.
Visitors to the museum have included Lynne Cheney, whose grandfather arrived in Salt Creek in 1912; former senator Alan Simpson; and former Salt Creekers from as far away as Wales and Germany.
“Oh my lands, who would have thought that dignitaries, senators, coordinators, and other oil management people would wind up going through all my scrapbooks and albums. They would look intently at the huge maps that hung on the walls trying to visualize the outlying camps and four thousand derricks that had once stood,” Schultz writes in her memoirs. “The most heartwarming situations come when someone walks through the door and says, ‘Mrs. Schultz, you probably don’t remember me, but I know you.’ Upon hearing who they are, I jump up and hug them, and we embark down memory lane. Some I rocked when they were babies, and others’ great-grandparents had been my neighbors.”
Schultz retired in June and moved to Tennessee. Her life’s passion has been documented for the State Historical Archives in Cheyenne. For her thousands of hours of volunteer service to the museum and her community, she also has received a President’s Call to Service Award from the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.
Of her work, Schultz says, “I’ve loved every second of it.”
By Anna Maria Gillis