News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

June 23, 2013

Deep Well of History: Oilfield, Illinois

Oilfield, Illinois, survives in 147-year-old schoolhouse-turned-store-turned-cafe

OILFIELD, ILL. — The fiery gas flares illuminated the night sky over Oilfield during Illinois’ oil boom.

“There were so many flares, it looked like daylight,” said Martha Menser.

She knows the history of her homeland, a pool-table flat stretch of northwestern Clark County, where pumpjacks still bob and churn oil from wells surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. Boosted by the 1890s discovery of black crude beneath the rich soil, a small community grew around a railroad stop, where trains serviced the oil producers. The village earned its name — Oilfield, Illinois. With a school, houses, stores and even a hotel, Oilfield became lively. Legends linger that author Charles Dickens, gangster John Dillinger, Ulysses S. Grant, actress Lillian Russell, philanthropist “Diamond” Jim Brady, and oil tycoons passed through, and that John D. Rockefeller spent a million dollars on a field nearby.

The memory of that era survives in its last remnant, Menser’s roadside cafe, fittingly and simply known as Oilfield.

Built in 1866 as the one-room Butternut schoolhouse, the structure has sat in three locations, all within a few yards of its current spot on the edge of the highway, Illinois 49. It’s belonged to Menser’s family for a half-century, changing from a school to a general store, a family storage building and, finally, a restaurant in 2007.

Pictures, artwork, relic pop bottles and vintage business signs — most locally based — cover the cafe’s walls and shelves. A scrapbook contains a letter postmarked May 31, 1932, the day the Oilfield Post Office closed. A photograph shows Menser’s mother, Mary Ennis, sitting in the Oilfield Store.

Many elements in the picture — the pot belly stove, the Hostess Cake rack, the plankboard wall — remain. The cafe menu matches the building, simple: cheeseburgers, chicken and pork sandwiches, fries, onion rings, coffee, tea, sodas, and pies — all homemade.

“We like the attraction of the history,” said Joe Hicks, who brought his family from rural Paris.

Menser hears similar comments from people who stop in Oilfield, intentionally or by chance. They’ve come from 36 states and eight foreign countries, according to names logged into a guestbook by the pot belly stove.

“We get a kick out of them getting a kick out of it,” said Menser.

She and her six siblings grew up just south of the building. All were born in the Oilfield community, except Menser, who came into the world in Union Hospital at Terre Haute. Three generations of the family have helped keep the locale alive.

Her dad, Elbert Ennis, bought the building in 1963, saving it from destruction. The state was widening Illinois 49, and the store stood too close to its path. The previous owners, facing a choice to move or tear down the structure, sold it to Elbert Ennis, who hauled it with a semi and a flatbed to its present home, and re-opened the store. It had been moved before, in 1924, after the town built a new Oilfield School to replace Butternut. That time, the building was disassembled, board by board, and moved south of the crossroads alongside Illinois 49, where it became a general store.

Elbert died in 1982. His wife, Mary, kept the store running until December 1986, when the family began using it for storage. In 2001, Menser’s sister and brother-in-law, Ruth Ann and Gene Beasley, bought the place, began renovating it and opened the diner in 2007, during warm-weather months. Gene, freshly retired, sparked that revival. “He wanted to cook hamburgers,” Ruth Ann said, looking at a photograph of her husband, who died a few years ago.

Menser and her husband, Jerry, became the new owners and proprietors in 2009, running the cafe year-round. Menser, now 57, had recently lost her job at Columbia House in Terre Haute. She wanted Oilfield to continue.

“I just grew up here,” explained Menser. “I was 7 when Mom and Dad were [first] there. I didn’t want to see it bulldozed.”

Her sisters, Ruth Ann and Sharon Stephen, still help out the staff, as well as other family members, including Menser’s mother-in-law, Maxine Shoot.

On a warm, sunny Wednesday last week, Menser’s niece, 17-year-old Shelby Ghast, tended to a lunchtime crowd that included passers-by, farmers and a crew from a nearby oil operation run by neighbor Dean Martin. “It’s something different from the usual fast-food restaurants,” Ghast said. “That’s why I would come here.”

A black, antique fan oscillated in front of an open window, spreading the cool breeze through the room. (Oilfield functions without central air conditioning or heating. Fans hum in the warm months, and a propane heater and space heaters take the chill from the air in the winter.) The scent of oil still floats in through the screened windows and door. “Oh yeah,” Menser said of the oil aroma, “even when the breeze isn’t blowing.”

Locals grow numb to the petroleum aroma, said farmer Michael Honselman. “I grew up looking at the oil flares down the road, and with the crude oil smell,” Honselman explained, grinning. “After a while, it’s ‘What smell?’ I don’t smell it anymore.”

Honselman sat, eating a sandwich on the Oilfield porch, across from Martin and his oil workers who filled the row of sheltered picnic tables. Taking a break from good-natured jokes and lunch-hour wisecracks with the crew, Martin said the oil business around Oilfield is strong again. “Oh, yeah, they’re drilling a lot around here,” he said. Martin’s own operation includes wells that were drilled in the 1920s, Oilfield’s heyday.

Whether that “Texas tea,” as TV’s Jed Clampett once called it, was flowing heavy or light, that unadorned, one-room building persevered through the decades. It’s endured some close calls. In the 1970s, fierce southerly winds swept over the prairie and nearly blew down the old store, and left it leaning. A neighbor straightened it with a backhoe and secured it with an oil pipe casing. Years later, the aging pipe was removed. Now, “every time the wind blows from the south, that door is hard to open,” Menser said, smiling.

As she traced her cafe’s timeline, Menser looked through drawings of the community, and the building, by late artist and Oilfield historian Lee Newlin. Some of his pictures date back to 1903. In her youth, Menser remembered Newlin — wearing bib overalls and some residual oil, chewing tobacco — coming to Oilfield Store for black, ripe bananas. The store was a gathering place. “I remember me and my dad coming here in the summer and staying till 9 o’clock,” said Warren Stephen, Menser’s 74-year-old brother-in-law.

A friend once asked Menser of Oilfield cafe, “Do you think a building is a place to be blessed?”

Menser recalled her answer Wednesday as the fan blew her hair and customers ambled through the door. “I think, yes,” she told her friend.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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