When oil was discovered in Loudon Township near Altamont and St. Elmo, there was a great influx of job seekers looking for work in the oil fields in the late 1930s.
Various companies had tried drilling for oil in the 1920s. Some had limited success, but the Carter Oil Company drilled a test well on Mary Miller’s farm in northeast Fayette County. The company used a new more efficient drill and hit oil at 1,600 feet. The oil boom had begun in that area. Workers from Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas and large oil companies, such as Shell, Texas Company (Texaco) and Standard Oil, began operating there. By the 1940s, the oil field was the second largest oil producing field after Texas.
These new workers swelled the populations of St. Elmo to almost 4,000 and Altamont to 2,100. This influx caused a housing shortage in both areas. Workers rented rooms in homes of local residents or slept in barns next to the horses. Some oil workers stayed in the Altamont Hotel. Others stayed in the home of Louis Wendling, who rented out two rooms to the workers. The oil field companies also employed high school students to work in the fields. Bill Wendling hitchhiked from Altamont to St. Elmo during the summers. He repaired the oil pumps during the hot summers until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945.
In 1938, the Carter Oil Company built Carter Camp, a group of small houses in the northeast part of Altamont. They were for Carter Oil Company workers and their families. Some of them are still standing. The oil boom happened in the latter part of the Great Depression and brought welcomed employment opportunities to Altamont, which were badly needed. Other companies like Halliburton rented a local garage for cement production.
St. Elmo became the epicenter of oil production in the area. Its streets became very busy with restaurants, movie theaters, a variety of stores and several taverns. Wooden oil derricks sprang up around the town, creating artificial lights at night around St. Elmo. The town of St. Elmo even boasted a football team, which was unusual for a small town.
With all of this activity going on in town, crime began to rise with drunks in the bars often getting into fights. One WPA (Works Progress Administration) worker got drunk, stumbled out of a tavern, and was beaten to death by a woman wielding a wooden two-by-four. There was also widespread gambling in St. Elmo.
Workplace safety became an issue in the oil fields. A Decatur Herald newspaper article told of a Beecher City man being hit in the head with an oil well machine. He fell into an oil pit but was rescued by his co-workers. Other oil well workers were burned or crushed to death by collapsing wooden oil derricks. The Carter Oil Company began offering banquets to oil crews who could go six months without an accident. An oil refinery explosion in 1938 at the edge of town sent flames 400 feet into the air. Local residents packed up most of their belongings into cars and wagons in case the fire swept through the town.
The idea of an airport in St. Elmo in 1923 is credited to William “Billy” Smith, a nationally known “faith healer”. Billy and his brother, John, operated the Elmo Hotel for the benefit of travelers who arrived at the airport and those who came to be healed by Billy. After Smith Aviation Field was built on land owned by Billy Smith and brother John at the west edge of town, it became congested with oil company planes. Charles Lindbergh landed at the airport for refueling at different times or avoided bad weather on his cross-country flights in 1927. He stayed at the Elmo Hotel in 1928. Joe Wright and Lindbergh were personal friends. Lindy sometimes stayed at Wright’s house in St. Elmo. A 12-by-30-foot brick building was constructed to honor Lindbergh’s legendary Trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. It became known as the “Lindbergh House”. It was torn down a few years ago. Other celebrity aviators like Amelia Earhart and Jimmie Doolittle also visited the airport in St. Elmo. Since the new field was the only one in southeastern Illinois, it enjoyed brisk business with the blossoming transcontinental air business.
Joe A. Wright was the chief pilot and aviation instructor at the Smith Aviation Field. He was the son-in-law of John Smith, who owned the field along with his brother Billy. The airport was incorporated in 1929 as Wright Aircraft Corporation. Ten cabins were erected near the airport for student pilots and air travelers. There were even stunt flyers and parachutists at the airport. It became a “filling station” for planes flying their routes in the Midwest. Sales of 50-100 gallons of fuel per customer weren’t uncommon. Charles Lindbergh was a regular customer.
Disaster struck the airfield when a large hangar caught fire in 1930 destroying several of Wright’s planes and motors. The airport hangar was rebuilt by its owners Billy and John Smith in three months, including a new circling beacon. Local officials suspected arson. Regular airmail and night passenger service between Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis started in 1931. As more airports sprang up and the oil business began to wane in St. Elmo, Wright left the airport after World War II and moved to Texas, where he was killed in a crop dusting accident.
To try and alleviate the housing shortage around St. Elmo, local resident and businessman Harry G. Lange started the St. Elmo Housing Company in 1937 along U.S. Route 40. He developed small OCTO Cottages to sell to tourist camps. The accommodations were small but adequate. Harry solicited agents across the nation to sell his OCTO cottages. He found a buyer in Effingham when the Effingham Cabin Court, featuring OCTO Cabins for tourists, was created on East Fayette Avenue and Willow Street. They were eventually dismantled, and the Cloverleaf Motel was built on the site. There was also an OCTO cottage tourist camp in Springfield, Illinois. Some farmers used the small structures for chicken coops.
Harry Lange was born on Oct. 12, 1901, in Altamont but had lived in St. Elmo since 1927. Lange was civic-minded and served on the village housing board, city council as city treasurer, and was mayor of St. Elmo. While serving on the housing committee, Harry and two other members R.E. Brown and George Atwood, made a complete survey of the facilities in St. Elmo. The survey was designed to address the housing problems resulting from the influx of new workers in connection with the development of the Loudon Oil Field. In April 1938, the Carter Oil Company leased part of Harry’s office building on Route 40 as its office and supply yard. Harry died on June 27, 1942, after suffering a massive stroke at his St. Elmo Housing Company office the day before. He was 40 years old. Harry was considered one of St. Elmo’s leading citizens. He was a wealthy lumberman and a member of the Lion’s Club. Lange was buried in Union Cemetery in Altamont. He was survived by his wife, Vera, and children Norma Jean and James H. Lange.
My uncle, Frank Cline, and his family moved to Altamont from Paris in the late 1930s so he could find work in the oil fields. While working there, my cousin, John, turned 16 years old. Frank taught him how to drive between Altamont and St. Elmo. One day in 1944 John lost control of their car with Frank as a passenger and crashed it. My uncle Frank was killed in the accident on Oct. 28, 1944, leaving behind my Aunt Lucile and her children, Bill, Margaret and John. Frank, Lucile and John are buried in the Edgar Cemetery in Paris, Illinois.
My grandparents, Ferd and Ethel Lewis, lived in the Brocton/Isabel area for several years. They became very religious after joining the local Pentecostal Church. For some unknown medical reason, Ethel traveled to St. Elmo by train in the late 1930s or early 1940s to be treated by William Frederick “Dr. Billy” Smith.
Smith was born Sept. 10, 1866, in Fayette County. He had a twin brother Henry F. Smith. They were the sons of Ferdinand Smith, a German horse doctor and faith healer, and Catherine Smith, his German faith-healing wife. Billy followed his parents’ lead into the “faith-healing” calling. He was sometimes called a “pow wow” doctor. Smith treated 40 to 80 patients per day. His business helped the town of St. Elmo financially in the 1930s and 1940s through his patients spending thousands of dollars per day in St. Elmo.
St. Elmo became a Mecca for countless incurables who had abiding faith in the power of Billy Smith to make them physically whole again. He gave 57,000 treatments in just 4 1/2 years. There were usually 3,600 people on the waiting list to be treated for incurable maladies. Billy credited the people’s recoveries with their faith in God. Members of his family attended the Methodist Church in St. Elmo. The hotels were always full to capacity. Through charitable donations for his services, Billy became wealthy and was one of the largest land owners in Fayette County. Billy Smith died on May 21, 1951, at the age of 84. He is buried in Maplewood Cemetery in St. Elmo.
My dad, Charlie Lewis, related the story about my grandmother Lewis visiting Billy Smith before he died in 2014. He also told me about my uncle Frank Cline getting killed. It is a small world that revealed the stories of St. Elmo, Altamont and my family. And all this research started with two postcards featuring OCTO cabins of St. Elmo.
“Black Gold: The Loudon Oil Field Story” by Devin Walk 2016
“Decatur Herald” issues 1937, 1938, 1985
Historical Postcards of Effingham County, Illinois by Historical Collectors Association 2004
Altamont, Illinois Centennial 1871-1971
St. Elmo Centennial 1870-1970
The Penn Germania: A Popular Journal of German History and Ideals-Vol. 13
Phil Lewis’ personal collections