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Historian at heart

Oil man’s fellowship gets student hands on living history

by Fred Devries | March 30, 2016

Historian at heart
Charlie Fairbank, BA’63

When you stand in the yard of Charlie Fairbank’s home, you hear the faint rhythm of history.

The creaking sound of steel chains fastened to aging lengths of wood shutter back and forth. Back and forth. Without stop. Every minute. Of every day. As they have been doing since the 1860s.

This century-and-a-half-old jerker line system of chains and wood – developed by Fairbank’s great-grandfather, John Henry Fairbank – pumps oil from the land around Oil Springs, Ont.

Lying close to the ground, the jerker lines cross Fairbank’s fields, pumping and delivering oil to underground storage wells built during the heyday of the late-1800s oil boom in this part of Lambton County, Ont., a one-hour drive west of London.

In a way, the jostling noise of the jerker lines pay homage to the history his family lived and he now preserves.

“I haven’t changed much about how we run and operate our oil fields from when they first started in 1861,” says Fairbank, BA’63, who runs Fairbank Oil Properties, a fourth-generation family company that’s been producing oil longer than anyone else in the world.

“The old ways of pumping oil are far better than anything of today,” he says, demurely proud of keeping the jerker lines and pumps running as his family has done for 150 years.

“What we do here stays in tune with nature, respects the environment – and the history,” says Fairbank, who has been described by comedian Jonny Harris as a “cross between J.R. Ewing and Yoda.”

While Fairbank is an oil man in business, he’s also an historian at heart. He can vividly recount events and stories of oil’s impact on Oil Springs, the home of the first commercial oil well anywhere on Earth. And he wants to keep those stories alive.

One way he’s doing that is through the Robert Cochrane Lambton County Fellowship that he established at Western. The fellowship, named in memory of one of his closest friends, supports a four-month internship through Western’s graduate program in Public History, offering students a hands-on opportunity to work at the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs.

“Through Charlie’s generosity, our students have gained incredible experiences in telling the social history of oil at the museum,” says Michelle Hamilton, Director of the Public History Program.

During one internship, a student documented the architecture of Oil Springs and created a walking tour of homes built in the oil boom era. Another student prepared applications to designate the Oil Springs area as a place of historical significance, while another worked on making digital history accessible through a website.

“Public history is history as experienced and interpreted by the public,” Hamilton says. She stressed public history projects can result in an exhibit at a museum, a commemorative plaque in a town, a film about an event or even a piece of historical fiction – anything that communicates history with the public.

Fairbank’s interest in history, combined with his gift to Western, has been a boon for students, such as Meghan Rivard, MA’09. During her internship at the Oil Museum, Rivard worked on compiling a social history of the area, talking with third- and fourth-generation oil families and town residents.

“I wanted to get their stories down on paper, simple stories of normal people living in spectacular times, so that the stories they know can live on,” Rivard says. “In doing this work, I was reminded of the importance of not taking our history for granted, and making it available to the public.”

Part of her internship included getting to know Fairbank. “Charlie holds such a knowledge of the area and its importance – and a passion to make sure the history is shared,” Rivard says. “Working with him and at the museum really renewed my enthusiasm for telling the story of people who’ve come before us.”

Telling that story also compels Fairbank. “I want to take the history of oil here in Ontario to a higher level and for people to know about it,” he says. “We’re modest about ourselves here in Oil Springs but we have something to offer. And Western students are helping us with our history.”

Click here to learn more about the history of the North American oil industry.

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Impact Western
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