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Sunday Favorites: Florida's Black Gold


Oil exploration in Florida was not a slick business, in fact, more often than not it usually led to dead ends.

The 1920s ushered in an era of fervent oil exploration, and Florida earned the U.S. Government's designation as the next frontier for oil investigation. In an enticing move, the State of Florida even pledged a reward of $50,000 to the trailblazer who could uncover commercial quantities of oil on the peninsula. Much like pioneers of the 1800s who journeyed from distant lands to secure their own slice of paradise through land grants, oil tycoons flocked to the scene, racing to stake their claim as the first to strike oil in the Sunshine State, according to the article "Great Florida Oil Boom Didn't Turn Out So Slick," by historian Mark D. Smith.

In Palmetto between 1924 and 1928, a business named Tri-County Oil, owned, and operated by George E. Wallace, Captain B.F. Alley, and E.L. Bell, attempted to drill for oil in Palmetto, Fla, according to Manatee County photo archives.
The first well, which featured a two-post drilling derrick, reached a depth of 1,300 feet deep before the drilling rig broke off and the well was abandoned. While the well did not produce even one drop of oil, it proved to be valuable in another way, it provided flowing water from a deep aquafer, something residents had not previously had access to.

The second well, also known as Palmetto Oil Well, was twice as deep as the first, reaching a depth of 2,600 feet. The machinery was augmented to include a four-post drilling derrick. Unlike the first well which only produced H2O, traces of oil were discovered. Samples were given to a local doctor, Dr. Larrabee, and tested in the laboratory of the local hospital. These samples were found to have a paraffin based rather than an asphalt base, like other oil discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Manatee County Library documents.

A crowd gathers at the drilling site of Tri-County Oil rig in Palmetto Florida, circa 1924.
A crowd gathers at the drilling site of Tri-County Oil rig in Palmetto Florida, circa 1924.

To prevent the mineral from being diluted by water, casings were installed to stop water flow. The well was swabbed with a piston-like device in hopes that the oil would begin flowing from the well. But the casing string broke in the process and water flowed through the shaft as workmen tried their best to seal it.

Tri-County Oil decided their discovery warranted one more attempt. The rig was moved to a private property in Palmetto. Here, a 700-foot well was dug when the drilling cable broke and all tools plummeted to the bottom. While the rig was dismantled and sold for scrap, the property owner did not go without reward. He used the water gushing from the well to irrigate his farm.

In the neighboring community of Sarasota, some of the big developer names had also dipped their interests into the oil industry. The land boom was slowing down, and purchasing equipment to attempt to keep their profits flowing was a risk they were willing to take, according to Smith.

Circus tycoon John Ringling had lost big on his investment for a Ritz Carlton on Longboat Key. After years of building and marketing his development as an island paradise, his luxury homes and destination lots set vacant. In 1926, he leased a portion of his land, located 12 miles east of Englewood, to Associated Oil and Gas Company.

Part of the oil drilling machinery used in Palmetto. There were actually 3 oil wells attempted in Palmetto between 1924 and 1928. George E. Wallace was president of the Tri-County Oil Company and W.E. Robinson was on the Board of Directors.
Part of the oil drilling machinery used in Palmetto. There were actually 3 oil wells attempted in Palmetto between 1924 and 1928. George E. Wallace …

Oil fever was beginning to grip Sarasota and the surrounding areas. Many were eager to invest in the venture. David Weeks stated in his book, "Ringling, The Florida Years, 1911 -- 1936," that participants in the oil venture included John Ringling, Owen Burns, J.H. Lord and the Palmer family. They were quietly backing the venture and were meeting costs estimated at $45,000 to $100,000.

In February 1927, Sarasota was filled with eager anticipation as they awaited the commencement of drilling at the Ringling test site, known as Well No.1. During a gathering at the Sarasota County Courthouse, Captain B.F. Alley, the site geologist, provided reassurance to the assembled crowd, expressing his optimism about discovering substantial oil reserves at the location.

According to a report published in the February 27 edition of the Sarasota-Herald, Alley confidently declared, "The real estate boom was a mere shower compared to the cloudburst of money that is coming into this section with the oil boom -- and that boom is coming just as we are seated here." He went on to assure the attendees that he could almost visualize the presence of oil.

On March 13, 1927, a crowd awaited the commencement of the drilling. Free cigars were handed out to male attendees, while women and children received free candy and soft drinks. To further promote the ceremony, Rogers Hornsby, captain of the New York Giants baseball team, was hired to start the machinery.

After all the hype and preparations, you can imagine the crowd's disappointment when the only mineral substance extracted at the site was a large amount of sulfur water, Smith wrote.

Almost two decades later, oil did eventually materialize in Collier County when Sunniland Oil Field was discovered. On September 26, 1943, after spending about $1 million and reaching a depth of 11,626 feet, Humble Oil Company completed its Sunniland No. 1, Florida's first producing oil well.

Initially, Sunniland No. 1 produced 140 barrels daily, later stabilizing at 20 barrels. Within a decade, the field had 11 wells producing 500,000 barrels annually. It led Florida's oil production until 1964 when Sun Oil tapped Felda field after 34 dry holes and $10 million investment. In 1970, oil was found in Jay with 70 wells yielding millions of barrels annually until Exxon ceased in 2007. More Sunniland Trend fields like Bear Island and Raccoon Point were discovered in 1972 and 1978, yielding a total of 31 million barrels. The peak in 1977 saw over 14,000 barrels per day, according to the article "Humble Finds First Oil of Florida in Sunniland Field".

The historic wellsite is now about 12 miles south of Immokalee, near the Big Cypress Preserve and a short drive from Naples. Today, Sunniland Trend produces nearly 2,800 barrels daily.

While Florida may not be renowned for its oil reserves, it has indeed proven to be a viable industry. However, today, the debate continues to rage, with many arguing that Florida's flourishing tourism industry far outweighs the necessity for further oil exploration. It's a dynamic balance between the allure of the Sunshine State's natural beauty and the potential hidden beneath its surface, reminding us that in this land of endless possibilities, the future is always waiting to be explored.

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