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November 21: Refined Oil in Robinson

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The city of Robinson, in Kidder County, experienced a news-making surprise in 1925. A public water well had begun to produce gasoline! The water had apparently turned bad for drinking a year earlier, but was still being used off-and-on for other purposes. A motorist who stopped to add water to his radiator, realized it was gasoline when he got it to burn.

Though the well was public, it was on private land. The landowner tried to lock the well, but residents insisted it should remain public, and despite the owner’s attempts to keep people out, they continued to sneak in and take gas by the bucketful.

Initially, it was suspected that the gasoline had seeped from an area filling station, but a check of nearby stations found no gas missing. Besides, the well had already produced more gas than those stations could store!

The Bismarck Tribune reported that area landowners were having dreams of sudden wealth, imagining big oil companies would come calling. Lots around the well were bought “at a boom price.”

Some felt that the phenomenon could be explained by a series of earthquakes in Montana, causing oil to seep through rock formations, somehow refining it in the process. Many people were reluctant to believe the well could produce gas. Some young locals decided upon an experiment. They emptied their tank, bought a gallon for $1.50, and started driving. They reported getting 16 miles to the gallon in their Ford.

On this date, many spectators and speculators turned up in Robinson -- an estimated 5,000 individuals who came to test the gasoline and take the opportunity to look around. Gasoline from the well was now being sold for 25 cents a pint. The Tribune noted, “the buyers furnished the containers, which for the most part were Mason fruit jars.”

State geologist, A.G. Leonard, analyzed the gas and confirmed that it was indeed refined gasoline. He felt it likely came from three tankers of gas that had wrecked in the area some time before.

The State Security Commission also weighed in, saying there were no geologist reports suggesting the possibility of oil in the area. That holds true today, as Kidder County is indeed, well outside the state’s oil-producing region.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


  • The Bismarck Tribune, September 17, 1925, p8
  • The Bismarck Tribune, October 14, 1925, p8
  • The Bismarck Tribune, November 23, 1925, p1

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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