The City of Salem was transformed in the 1930's from a quiet-paced small town doing its best to recover from the Depression to a city hit with another severe jolt in its economy - known as "the oil boom."
This time the economy move spiraled upward although the city was at first paralyzed with hundreds of people who moved into the area overnight with need of immediate housing, food and everyday essentials.
Restaurant owners experienced a boom of their own when long lines of people appeared at dawn waiting to be fed. The condition continued through the days and weeks which followed. Every available room in town was filled to capacity and residents began opening their homes to those without shelter. Other newcomers not fortunate enough to find places were forced to resort to empty sheds, chicken houses, makeshift tents and "lean-tos" until something more adequate became available. Demands of the new population created power shortages and lack of adequate hospital and medical services. The oil rush to the Salem area was likened by many to the gold rush of California.
When the initial shock of the boom subsided , however, Salem oil industries and land owners had become a part of the business which was noted for having the second highest amount of oil production in any one area. In 1939, 93 million barrels of oil were pumped from Marion County's farmland. At the time producers were selling oil for fifty cents a barrel.
Gordon Kemp was one of those drawn to Salem. He was transferred with the Redford Construction Company in October of 1938 at the age of 21. A single man, he and several other men from Lions, Kansas, moved with the company because of new wages offered of $5.50 per day. The new rate was 50 cents more than the $5 daily wages paid in Kansas.
The single men were transferred first, then the married men, although there was no room for their families. The Redford men's first job was to build the General Machine and Tool Shed to house equipment to be used by the company. The tools were used to erect the pumping units and anchors after the oil wells had been drilled.
Kemp recalls their busy workload and says he and the men worked through the worst of weather conditions including hazards created by the weather - namely mud. "It as the worst mud I have ever seen," Kemp says. Teams of horses and wagons were required to haul tools and equipment into fields. Mud was up to four feet deep in some fields and roads were almost non-existent. Corduroy roads were installed by logs being laid side by side in several areas for use by vehicles but few men would risk driving to work because the tires could easily slide off the logs and the car be swallowed by the mud.
Retired Salem farmer, Troy Featherling, agreed with Kemps' description of the mud. During the winter in the late 1930's the mud was so bad that Young's School (now Selmaville South) had to be closed. Featherling added, "The mud could bury a Catepillar (tractor)."
Featherling, who has lived in the Salem area all of his life, said that before the oil boom, "we were like everyone else. We were farmers about to starve. It was lucky if we had enough money to pay taxes." Like other farmers in the area Featherling turned from farming to oil during the boom days. He recalled that the change agitated some of the oil field workers from Oklahoma and Texas because they thought the farmers were taking "their" jobs. Featherling recalled that the newcomers would call the Illinois farmers "punkin eaters."
Featherling worked eight hours a day, five days a week. When asked how he spent his weekends, his reply was, "If someone was lucky enough to have a job that allowed two days off, he would rest." He added that weekends were not considered a time to "kick up your heels and have a good time."
Some of the new oil industrialists moving into the area were said to have had an attitude that emphasized "mind your own business." Oil companies tried to keep a lid on information concerning prospective "gushers" if they had not leased all the other land in a producing oil well's vicinity. There was always the possibility of another company finding more oil in the same area. The competition was fierce. Because of this competition some of the farmers became wealthy overnight.
The only ones to celebrate big in the area were some of the farmers who were becoming rich from leasing land to the oil companies. Featherling recalled one young farmer who was so excited after receiving his royalty money that he accidentally drove his car into a pond. "The next day he took some of the money and bought himself a new car," Featherling said, and remembered the man bought three new Buicks by the end of that year.
Featherling talked of another farmer who became "rich over-night," and who considered to be the richest farmer in the oil business. The farmer was on his way to Champaign to receive $15 an acre for leasing his land to an oil company when he was asked to go fishing with an elderly neighbor. Ten days later the oil companies started paying $30 an acre. "I remember the farmer telling me how he wished he would have stayed home and gone fishing with 'that old man,'" Featherling said.
Fred Wagoner moved with the Texas Oil Company near the end of the boom days. Wagoner began his oil career in 1922 in Bristow, Oklahoma, as a roustabout or general worker laying pipelines. He was transferred to Woodlawn, Illinois, to be in charge of production in 1941. In September of 1942, at the age of 45, he moved to Salem and was promoted to oil field foreman. Wagoner worked seven days a week and was on call 24 hours a day. "It wasn't work eight hours and take off like they do now," Wagoner added.