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This is the Corner Tavern in downtown Salem, Illinois; 1940. There was a full blown oil boom underway in Marion County, Illinois when this photo was taken; the Texas Company had discovered the Salem Field in the county in 1938 and two years later the fields development was going wide-ass open. Those look like roustabout hands hanging out on the corner waiting for their next job to come in.

Its warm and cozy in the Corner Tavern; it probably has a kick ass cheeseburger in it and, because its in the oilfield, a hand could get plum twisted off in there, piece of cake. You could likely sit at the counter and listen to news on the radio about all the stuff going on in Europe that was leading up World War II. A year later, on a dreary day in December, Pearl Harbor will be bombed and most everyone in America will be off to war in both the European and Pacific theatres. Thousands of good men were left behind all across America to do what they knew how to do best, find and produce oil...lots of it, as fast as they could.

The Salem Field discovery was a Godsend for local farmers in the area. A story has it a Marion County farmer was so elated to be on his way to Champaign to pick up his lease bonus check for $15 an acre he stopped somewhere, in a joint, and got drunk for two days. By the time he actually got to Champaign to pick up his check the lease bonus per acre had gone up to $40. I'm sure he stopped at the same joint on the way back home to celebrate again.

Like all boom times, anywhere, they had there problems in Marion County, Illinois; the same sort of shit every oil man goes thru... anywhere. One, it was often cold and muddy, so muddy, in fact, they often had to build board roads and use rig mats, like Louisiana! Above, its not a good day when the truck your driving carrying rig mats...gets stuck in the damn mud on the side of the road, above.

Even Texas hands involved in Salem field development were impressed with Marion County's mud. Texans know mud, by the way; along the SE Gulf Coast mud "boats" were often used to slide equipment to a location. Illinois mud could get as deep as four to five feet on plowed corn and soybean fields in the spring time, grinding everything to a slow, painstaking pace. So deep and sticky was this stuff that operators were afraid to use mules in Illinois to pull trucks out of the muck for fear they would get stuck and starve to death.

Schools were sometimes closed in the county because of mud.

There were oilfield hands everywhere in 1938-1940, all needing a place to sleep and in the town of Salem things got packed, then very expensive. Down the list of priorities for a drilling hand, besides pay, beer, food and a bed, is getting your laundry just about that exact order.

Salem, Illinois; 1940

Inside of 12 months in 1939 there was so much stinking oil everywhere in Salem Field the price went down and they had no place to put the stuff. So, it went to far away places on rail cars.

And clearly, as we can see in many of the photographs, they flared the snot out of their associated gas, a necessary evil then as by 1940-1941 the United States was already playing a significant role in fueling the Allied war effort in Europe. So significant did Illinois' oil production become by the time our country entered the war effort in 1942, that state was producing 11% of total US production.

Salem Field; 1940.

Today, Marion County, Illinois is the 2nd largest oil producer in the state and made 816,000 barrels of oil in 2020.


All photographs by Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) and courtesy the Library of Congress Digital Photograph Library

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