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Boomtown Beginnings

April 18, 2001

Historian's Notes

If you were born in Bartlesville, as I was, the history of the Nellie Johnstone no. 1 is engraved onto your brain within an hour of your birth. Every year, to celebrate the special occasion, I hold a Nellie Johnstone no. 1 anniversary party and invite all my closest friends.


Weston, E. (comp. Butcher, J.) (1996). Bartlesville. Marceline, Mo.: D-Books Pub.

Williams, J. (1978). Bartlesville: Remembrances of times past, reflections of today. Bartlesville, OK: TRW Reda Pump Division.

Wallis, M. (1995). Oil man: The story of Frank Phillips and the birth of Phillips Petroleum. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Almanac Transcript

Hello, I'm Steven Kite welcoming you to the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.

The foundations of many Oklahoma towns are built for better or worse on the oil industry. It was in this week of 1897 that one of the more famous of the Oklahoma oil towns received a big boost. On April 15, 1897 an oil well in the Cherokee nation was fired with nitroglycerin and began producing at the rate of thirty barrels a day. That well was on the farm of Cherokee citizen Nellie Johnstone and became known as the Nellie Johnstone No. One. Today if you visited the site of that well you would find yourself in Johnstone Park in downtown Bartlesville. The well on Johnstone’s farm was the first commercial oil well in what is now Oklahoma and gave a big boost to the local oil industry and the development of Bartlesville. Before the oil well Bartlesville had been a sleepy town largely centered around flour and grist mills. The city lay within Cherokee lands, and it was by marrying into the tribe that the town founders Jacob Bartles, William Johnstone and George Keeler were able to operate the mills and stores that provided for the beginnings of the town.

Once the oil hit, however, Bartlesville was reborn as a boomtown. The Bartlesville sand as it was called attracted people from around the country all in the hopes of making a fortune. By 1903 six years after the initial discovery the town had indeed boomed bringing the population from 648 to 4,215. The Bartlesville sand oil field stretched from the Kansas border almost to Tulsa and gave birth to some of the biggest oil companies in the nation.

Two brothers ex-barbers actually lured by the smell of oil and money set up drilling operations and formed The Phillips 66 Petroleum Company. Cities Service, now Citco formed in Bartlesville soon after Phillips and both companies flourished. As is the constant story of Oklahoma the presence of oil and a chance for profit signaled a drastic change for the Native Americans in the region. The oil boom and the large population attracted by it meant swift and permanent changes for the Cherokees and Delawares in the region of the Bartlesville Field. No longer a sleepy mill town at the crossroads of two trails, Bartlesville like it or not was a boom town and a town now forever tied to the fortunes of oil. The Nellie Johnstone No. One, the first commercial oil well in Oklahoma and the catalyst for all that is Bartlesville, began producing for the first time this week in 1897.

I'm Steven Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a production of the OSU Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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