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Bill Stumpf, Character and Site Interpreter, Drake Well Museum

Story by Milli Thornton. Photos & video Copyright © Brian Williams.

“Most of us are covered in oil, from the toes on up, because of all the thousands of products made from oil.”

So goes the opening to a fascinating spiel by Bill Stumpf, speaking for the Drake Well Museum located outside of Titusville, Pennsylvania. Titusville is known for the discovery of petroleum in 1859, resulting in the birth of the modern oil industry. Sent by the Seneca Oil Company, “Colonel” Edwin Drake—with the help of his driller, Uncle Billy Smith—became the first to drill for oil in the area.

Brian and I stood inside the Drake Well Replica. We were lucky enough to be Bill’s only captive audience right then, so I was able to pepper him with questions about his role at the museum. But not before we’d heard many other eye-openers about crude oil and the petrochemicals used in modern industry.

Brian's tourist-sized bottle of crude. Should we drink it?

Brian's tourist-sized bottle of crude. Should we drink it?

“The rubber on sneakers,” Bill continued. “Vinyl. Plastic. Unless you’re wearing 100% wool, cotton or silk your clothing is made using oil. They make aspirin from oil.

“One of the things they found in Pennsylvania crude that made it so good was paraffin wax. They used it to make candles, of course, but it’s also been used in chewing gum to make it last longer. They put it in chocolate to harden it—otherwise your Hershey bar would be a little brown puddle on the table.”

The story that really grabbed me by the hair was about the medicinal purposes of “crude.” With crude oil spilling into a barrel at the other end of the machinery Bill was demonstrating, I could not believe anybody would ever drink that dark, smelly brew. Bill assured us the Seneca Indians used it for various ailments, easily obtaining enough for their needs as it bubbled up from the ground.

After white men arrived, the use of crude for whatever ails you eventually got lost in translation from “Seneca oil” to “snake oil.” Thus was born the term snake oil salesman.

I could tell Bill relishes the impact his memorable, sometimes gross and—in the case of Edwin Drake—sometimes tragic facts and tidbits have on the sensibilities of his listeners, even though he’s undoubtedly told thousands of people the same stuff. His sense of humor and passion for the topic were the qualities that made me curious about Bill the man.

Bill answering questions for a couple visiting the museum

Bill answering questions for a couple visiting the museum

When I asked Bill his job title, he paused for effect and said, “I’m a liar.” That gave all three of us the belly laughs, but he finally admitted he’s a site interpreter.

“This is my summer job. When I retired from teaching this was my dream retirement. I love to talk . . . and I always learn something. I get people from all over the world. No matter what day it is, somebody comes in and asks me a question I don’t know. And then I look for the answer.”

When I wondered out loud where he looks for his answers, Bill told us about the museum’s archives; one of the largest oil archives in the world. The archives consist of books, manuscripts, letters, oil records, Colonel Drake’s own diaries and more, kept in a climate-controlled private room used mainly by staff. Outside researchers can contact the curator for permission to access the archives.

Mission control for Bill Stumpf: Drake Well Replica

Mission control for Bill Stumpf: Drake Well Replica

Bill taught language arts to sixth and seventh graders for 35 years. “I loved it. And I still do—it’s just that it was time for me to retire. I still love kids. We take school tours through here and I have a ball with the kids.”

Bill also keeps busy as a storyteller. “I have a whole program of oil stories. And I do folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends, folk songs.”

When asked if he belongs to a storytelling guild, he said, “No, I’m basically a loner. There’s the Pittsburgh Storytelling Guild . . . but in the back of my mind I have an idea to create a storytelling festival here. There are a couple of storytellers—liars, like me—in the area.”

Meanwhile, Bill delivers his stories to audiences such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Lions Club, women’s clubs, banquets, the annual Oil Festival and more. We were consoled by the idea that if Bill’s voice gets tired from all that yakking, he can turn to the medicinal crude.

“Yep, swallow some of that and it’ll make it smooth as silk,” he said with a grin.

Drake Well Museum


See Bill in action as Site Interpreter and watch as real crude pumps into a barrel at the other end of the single-piston steam engine:


Milli Thornton

Milli Thornton

Milli Thornton (aka Milliver) is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She is owner of the Fear of Writing Online Course, where her mission is to put the fun back into writing. Milli blogs at the Fear of Writing Blog and coaches writers individually at Writer’s Muse Coaching Service.

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  1. What a colorful and informative article Milli. Bill sounds like a lot of fun to talk to and his mastery of the Drake Well Museum history is impressive. You did a great job of reporting it.

    You have brought the character of Bill Stumpf alive with your descriptions and I really enjoyed the pictures and the videos by Brian.

    I’ve worn non-synthetic clothes most of my life due to the nature of synthetics, but it’s sure disconcerting to hear that Hershey’s uses crude oil in their chocolate! I’ve tried to find shoes that don’t have rubber soles and it isn’t trivial!

    Although most people have probably heard the term snake oil, it’s enlightening to hear it came from “Seneca oil.” I didn’t know the snake oil was actually from crude oil. Yuk!

    catherine 🙂

    • I know what you mean, Catherine. Bill’s talk sure opened my eyes to a few things, such as the secret to firm Hershey’s bars.

      But I also realized that maybe “crude” is not as gross as it looks and smells in terms of effects. I’d have to do some research first before I believe the medicinal claims – but with even the Indians using it for their ailments, it makes me think there might be something to it.

      Bill told us about people injecting it for certain conditions and that just put me right over the top! 😀

      Glad you enjoyed the article. I had a blast talking to, and writing about, Bill Stumpf. He’s definitely a character – and worth listening to for his knowledge and anecdotes.

  2. Haley | Girl About the World says:

    Wow, I knew oil was used in a lot of things, but some of these were really surprising. It’s great that you were able to get so much information from Bill — he sounds like a fountain of knowledge and wonderful storyteller.

    • There was even more – way too much to fit in one article. I focused on Bill because he gave me a way to connect personally to the history of Drake Well. And because he was so humorous. 😀 I didn’t think learning about oil would be that much fun.

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  4. Hey this is cool! Crude oil in my chocolates…whew! I love the pics by the way, the writing and pics combined make me feel that even oil drilling can be idyllic. Great stuff Milli!

    • That’s a great line, Roona. “. . . makes me feel that even oil drilling can be idyllic.” It is when you have a guy like Bill yarning you about it. But there were enough gross things and enough hardship in the story that I’m glad I wasn’t born there in the late 1800s. I know those locals would be in utter disbelief if they could see what we do with crude in our modern society. Even we are! 😀

  5. Thanks for a wonderful job, Millie! Everyone here at Drake Well thinks Bill’s a treasure – and now even more people will want to meet him. I hope you’ll take a trip back through the PA Oil heritage Region when the new Drake Well exhibit is installed and opened to the public. I’m looking forward to showing you around the gallery.

    • Thank you for visiting, Barbara. I have your article, “A Drop of Oil,” in the Pennsylvania Heritage magazine and would be honored to be shown through the new gallery by you after it opens.

      Bill was fun to meet and so easy to write about. He’s an engaging character and generous with his knowledge. Perfect for the job of site interpreter!

  6. Great story Milli, You make me want to meet Bill and visit the museum so bad. This is a great intro, because it is on my list next time I’m in PA.
    Isn’t it amazing to learn about things like this? I didn’t know the first oil well was in PA?! I would have guessed TX or OK.
    People are surprised to learn that most everything they use and wear uses minerals that come from the ground. Like Bill said, only 100% silk, cotton or wool are without crude oil and even those materials most often are processed using multiple minerals that have been mined to make it into the final product.
    I don’t know about drinking the black silk straight down though! Tell Brain to keep the cap on that little souvenir of his!
    Thank you so much for this wonderful virtual field trip! I would love to see those old documents in the archives, sounds like an exhaustive library of treasures! I’ve got to get up there and meet Bill!

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