Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

Throughout 2009, the staff and volunteers of Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Venango County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), were involved in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the world’s first successful well drilled for oil. Programs, parades, and events were carried out in conjunction with Oil 150!, a collaborative effort throughout northwestern Pennsylvania’s Oil Heritage Region. While all this was going on — looking to the past — Drake Well Museum was preparing for the museum’s next steps into the future.

As the anniversary celebration wound down, staff members began packing collections and the library for storage. They moved their offices and the museum’s visitor orientation activities into trailers that would be their home during a major project to expand and renovate the 1960s-era museum building and visitor center. The construction of a separate maintenance facility in 2005–2006 had freed space in the main building to enlarge the library and collections storage space, create a dedicated (and quieter) research area and curatorial workspace, and update educational programming and meeting spaces.

Drake Well Museum is the birthplace of the oil industry. A replica of Colonel Edwin L. Drake’s derrick that struck oil in August 1859 is the centerpiece of outdoor exhibits at the 240-acre site, which include a working array of oil pumping machinery — a feast for the ears as well as the eyes! A building housing the museum’s Oil Transportation Exhibit showcases vehicles used in the oil fields. Vignettes around the site re-create life in the oil region during its height and provide backdrops for special events and programs.

The expansion and renovation project was underway in autumn 2009 as site staff — and colleagues at PHMC and its historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History® — faced the aftermath of drastic budget cuts and employee furloughs. By spring, staff and volunteers had adjusted to the “new normal” and reopened the museum to the public.

The museum store, a building separate from the museum/ visitor center, handled admissions, and an orientation trailer was outfitted with a video entitled The Valley that Changed the World, including space for hands-on activities where visitors made “squeeze and sniff” bottles of oil samples from around the world. Outdoor exhibits functioned as usual, and many programs and workshops took place. School groups continued to enjoy the Nitro Show, a signature event of Drake Well Museum that defies description (search YouTube for “Drake Well Nitro Show” and enjoy).

To keep Drake Well Museum in the public eye, a Mobile Energy Education Training Unit (MEET-U), a traveling exhibit in a 44-foot-long trailer that explores energy use, oil and natural gas drilling in the region, and geology was developed. MEET-U traveled more than seven thousand miles in 2010, stopping at county fairs, festivals, schools, and museums. MEET-U staff and volunteers spoke with thousands of Pennsylvanians, including sixteen thousand school students.

After more than a year of work, the new building is a reality-in-progress. I asked some of the staff about this much anticipated milestone, given they’ve been planning toward and working tirelessly for this day. Curator Susan J. Beates is excited about consolidating the site’s collections, which had previously been stored in seven different areas, in one location. The new storage area has two zones of fire suppression, engineered by LLI Engineering, Wexford, and installed by S. A. Communale Company Inc., Reading. One is a “wet” system while the other is “dry” in order to safeguard the rarest paper items, photographs, and glass plate negatives.

“Drake Well houses many items not included in the collections of the Library of Congress or the American Antiquarian Society collections,” Beates says. “There are unique resources which many international scholars have traveled here to use.” Moving those resources — more than sixty-five hundred artifacts and eighteen hundred cubic feet of manuscript materials — into their new home, whether in storage or on exhibit, will be a welcome challenge.

Barbara T. Zolli, Drake Well’s site administrator, considers the project an ideal opportunity to rethink the museum and its programs and encourages others to do so as well. “Our renovated museum building will house new, more relevant long-term and temporary exhibits focused on educating visitors of all ages about current energy issues using the lens of history.” MEET-U provided a forum to explore these more contemporary themes which will debut in a new exhibit entitled There’s a drop of oil and gas in your life every day!

As with the museum’s previous long-term exhibit, periodically updated by staff, the new exhibit (hopefully to be completed this year) recounts the early history of oil and the many petroleum-based products developed over the years. There’s a drop of oil and gas in your life every day! brings the story to the present and asks visitors to think about choices and alternatives they face because of the nation’s dependence on oil and gas. The museum’s new orientation theater, named in honor of Charles L. Suhr (1877–1970), a founder of Pennzoil, will feature a multimedia production designed by The Magic Lantern, Pittsburgh, to engage and excite audiences.

In addition to new spaces and exhibits, the expanded museum building uses new technologies. “I am pleased,” Zolli continues, “that the building’s design and construction practice what we are preaching—flooring made from recycled tires, alternative energy for heating and cooling with geothermal wells drilled on the property, and more efficient use of electricity.”

Architect for the project was the Pittsburgh firm Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel, and general contractor was J. C. Orr and Son Inc., Altoona. The total budget for the building expansion and new fire suppression system came in at just under five million dollars. New exhibits, designed by Gerald Hilferty and Associates, Athens, Ohio, and fabricated by Studio Displays Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, and orientation theater and signage on the museum grounds, will cost approximately three million dollars, of which more than one-third was raised by the Friends of Drake Well from individuals, corporations, and local trusts.

 

The author thanks colleagues Barbara T. Zolli, Susan J. Beates, Daniel J. Weaver, Barry A. Loveland, and Brenda J. Reigle for their assistance with this installment of Trailheads.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator based in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, supporting education, interpretation, and communications efforts bureau-wide and at individual historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History.