1951: Striking Oil on Clarence Iverson’s Wheat Farm Near Tioga

Back in August 2008, with the North Dakota oil boom underway near the end of a summer of very high energy prices, James MacPherson of the Associated Press told the story of the birth of the oil boom in a wheat field on April 4, 1951. He wrote:

TIOGA – Retired roughneck Tude Gordon remembers getting ribbed for helping perforate North Dakota’s prairie in search of oil.

That was 57 years ago, and locals scoffed at outside oilmen poking around the countryside, said Gordon, 93, of Williston. Years of effort to find oil had found only dry holes, and North Dakotans had reason for doubt, he said.

“One man told me he’d drink every drop of oil that comes out of North Dakota,” Gordon recalled. “I told him to watch out because he might have to eat his words.”

Gordon, an Oklahoma native, said he worked on rigs in many states. He and other roughnecks from Oklahoma and Texas endured bitter winters of drilling wildcat wells in North Dakota, and even they became wary. But at one well south of Tioga, on Clarence Iverson’s hilly wheat farm, Gordon said he and others saw promise.

“I told Clarence Iverson: ‘It looks to me like you’ll be able to go to Arizona in the winter time,'” Gordon said.

On April 4, 1951, Amerada Corp.’s well struck oil on Iverson’s farm, spurring an oil frenzy that has lasted six decades throughout the Williston Basin, a 134,000 square-mile-area that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Western North Dakota accounts for more than a third of the Williston Basin acreage.

Gordon was one of about a dozen men on the well when oil was first brought to the surface, and he is now the only one living.

Sid Anderson, a former state geologist and petroleum engineer, was a college student at the University of North Dakota when oil was discovered in the state.

“It was brand new, then, and pretty exiting times,” said Anderson, of Grand Forks.

The amber-colored oil in the area was of such high quality, Anderson recalled, that “you could have run a diesel with it straight from the well.” . . .

No one was as exited about the discovery of oil in North Dakota as geologist Thomas Leach, and no one did more to coax companies to look for oil in the Williston Basin, said Clem Weber, an engineer who worked for Leach.

“He was determined and optimistic that oil would be found,” Weber said. “He was as much as a businessman as he was a geologist.”

Weber said Leach first visited the state in 1928, as a chief geologist for Transcontinental Oil Co. He was convinced oil was locked beneath North Dakota and the Williston Basin but he could not persuade the company. Leach then struck out on his own, opened an office in Bismarck and bought up thousands of acres in leases.

“This was the outcropping that he felt would be oil-productive,” Weber said.

Leach, who prodded Amerada to drill the Iverson well, was ecstatic when oil first surfaced there, said Weber, who was hired by Leach exactly one month before the discovery.

The men were in Leach’s Bismarck office when news of the Tioga strike hit.

“He was so exited, he couldn’t get up there fast enough,” Weber said.

“He was a very humble person and gentleman, and never said ‘I told you so,'” Weber said. “His work spoke for him.”

Leach became one of the largest mineral owners and oil operators in the state, and his company, North American Royalties, was the first company in North Dakota to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. . . .

Leach, an Army artillery officer in World War I and World War II, also had to put his exploration on hold but returned to North Dakota immediately after the war, Weber said.

Ed Murphy, the state geologist, said the earliest permit issued for oil exploration in North Dakota was in 1923. About two dozen permits had been issued before the Iverson strike, and at least a few dry holes were drilled within a few miles of the Iverson farm, Murphy said.

Clarence Iverson wasn’t pleased when seismologists exploded dynamite in his wheat fields looking for oil, said his son, Cliff, who was 20 when oil was found on the family farm.

“He worried a lot about his water wells,” Cliff Iverson said of his father. He only remembers his father smiling when oil surfaced.

The farm became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Upper Midwest after oil was discovered there, Iverson said.

“They came from as far as Minnesota and all over North Dakota and Montana,” Iverson said. “People knew it was history in the making, and it changed a lot of people’s lives.”

The Clarence Iverson No. 1 produced 585,000 barrels for 28 years. Clarence Iverson died in 1986, a wealthy man “who never got used to all that money,” his son said.

Cliff Iverson still raises durum on the farm and lives in the pink home where he grew up – though he can afford not to. He said he’ll retire when his 51-year-old cab-less combine wears out.

“Guys that are used to living simply are hard to change,” Iverson said.

Today, nodding oil pumps are scattered throughout the region, and roads are heavy with oil traffic. The well site at Iverson’s farm now is marked with a monument and overgrown with durum. . . .

Gordon said he relishes knowing he worked on the well that sparked the frenzy in the Williston Basin. And for years, he couldn’t pass up the chance to rub it in with the pessimistic man who claimed he would guzzle any oil found in the state.

“I used to kid him every time I’d see him, and ask him how he’s coming drinking all that oil,” Gordon said.

There’s a small postscript to this: MacPherson, who’s still reporting on North Dakota oil and natural gas for the AP (look for some of his recent articles via Google News), recently wrote an article in which Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said: “We are now looking at the possibility of 700,000 barrels a day and we see that coming in the next four to seven years.” Helms added: “We’re starting to see indications that we could reasonably get 11 billion barrels. I’m running out of superlatives. We’re going to have to invent some new ones.”

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3 Responses to 1951: Striking Oil on Clarence Iverson’s Wheat Farm Near Tioga

  1. barnum says:

    greart artilce! do you have a bibliography?

  2. Ronald Engesether says:

    I came from Fargo to Tioga in 1952 work for Christinson who built a lot of homes there.I bought a new 52 Chev from the car dealer in Tioga. I met the Iverson Boys and there pretty sister.I was 17 years old.I remember Clarence would come in the bowling and pool hall in Tioga with 10 $100 dollar bills pin on his necktie.Harry Truman came to Tioga.

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