Neodesha, Kansas is the birthplace of the great plains oil boom. The replica oil well found in this small Kansas town is a symbol of the discovery that reshaped America.
The commercial petroleum industry got its start in 1859 in Pennsylvania, and eventually enterprises were set up across the Appalachian basin. By the 1890s, rumors of glowing gas springs that abounded in southeast Kansas led local citizens to encourage William Mills, a Pennsylvania oil prospector, to come to town to supply natural gas to the residents of Neodesha.
After surveying several plots of land, Mills eventually chose the four-acre garden of local blacksmith T.J. Norman and began drilling on the banks of the Verdigris River. On November 28, 1892, Mills struck oil at 832 feet underground. The site became the first commercial oil well west of the Mississippi River.
The site, named the Norman No. 1 Oil Well in honor of its landowner, kicked off an oil boom that began in Kansas and soon spread to neighboring states as oil was discovered in even greater quantities. Norman No. 1 Oil Well was the first commercial well in the Mid-Continent Oil Field, an area that stretched from Kansas all the way through New Mexico. Drilling in Oklahoma and Texas would lead to even larger oil production, and an oil boom that would last through the first half of the 20th century.
The Norman No. 1 Oil Well produced 12 barrels of oil a day at its height, but production dropped to half a barrel per day by 1919 due to a leaky casing, at which point the rig was dismantled and equipment removed. The site fell into disuse until 1961, when a 65-foot tall replica derrick was built on the old well site using California redwood. The well site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. However, due to multiple floods, the replica derrick and museum were moved a few blocks away in 1989, where they still stand today to welcome visitors to Neodesha.
The oil industry has long left Neodesha, and the major industry in town today is recreational boat manufacturing. However, the Neodesha Historical Museum, located next door to the replica oil well, continues to commemorate this significant moment in town and American history, along with many other artifacts from the town’s history, complete with clown memorabilia.