Martin J. Woodward

The M.J. Woodward Refinery in Petrolia, Ont.

Martin J. Woodward

Petroleum Expert, Oil Producer and Refiner

In 1880 nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s oil was being produced and refined in the Petrolia area. It was an era prior to the advent of the automobile but even then Petrolia could boast nine independent refineries, turning out a surprising range of petroleum by-products.  In addition to illuminating oils and lubricants other products such as tar, naphtha, wool oil, gas oil and paraffin wax were being produced here in large quantities for both domestic and export markets.

Many of the town’s largest oil producers at the time were also refiners and prominent among them was Martin J. Woodward.  Woodward could be counted among the town’s early drillers and over the course of a career that spanned more than 40-years he became, not only one of the town’s best known businessmen, but was noted internationally as an expert in all facets of the petroleum industry.  In addition to be being a prominent oil producer, during his lifetime Woodward oversaw the construction of, and had a financial interest in, four substantial refineries, including the first one ever constructed in Borneo.

The M.J. Woodard Company’s Petrolia refinery employed about 20 men and processed 75,000 barrels of crude oil annually. The company manufactured and sold several grades of illuminating oil domestically and produced a number of lubricants for the U.S. export market. In addition, the company supplied several U.S. railroads with their petroleum needs.   

Martin J. Woodward was born in 1845 in New York State and was a small child when his parents came to Ontario, settling in Oxford County near the present-day town of Ingersoll. His father, Dewitt Clinton Woodward, taught school there for a number of years but later went into the mercantile business and was thus engaged the rest of his life.

Martin grew to manhood in Oxford County. He attended the grammar school in Ingersoll and was later enrolled at the Military Academy in London.  After graduating he enlisted in Company-one of the St. Clair Borderers and soon rose to the rank of captain, a position he held for a number of years.

His first experience in the oil business, however, was in Pennsylvania and what attracted him there and how successful he was in the American oil fields is a matter of conjecture.  Nevertheless, he left there in 1866 and settled in the Town of Bothwell, Ont., where he was engaged in the lumber business for a short time.

In 1867, he came to Petrolia, began drilling for oil and was soon among the town’s largest oil producers.  Three years later he formed the M.J. Woodward Co. and built his first refinery in Petrolia.  He operated this business successfully for many years, the company’s offices being on the second floor of the Petrolia Masonic building (now Dr. Li’s office).

However, in the early 1890s, largely due to the aggression of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, there was an abrupt drop in the price of illuminating oil as cheaper American imports flowed in to capture a greater share of the Canadian market. Canadian refiners found it very difficult to compete, and as a consequence, in 1892 four of Petrolia’s smaller refineries were forced to close and the M.J. Woodward refinery was placed into bankruptcy.  The plant was then purchased by the partnership of J.H. Fairbank and Rogers and Company. They in turn sold it to the Bushnell Oil Company in 1897.  

That same year, Woodward was commissioned by the Shell Transportation Co. to oversee the construction of a 5-million barrel refinery on the Island of Borneo, which at the time would have made it the largest refinery in the world. The refinery equipment was fabricated in England in accordance with Mr. Woodward’s specifications and loaded on a vessel for transportation.  Woodward went along as superintendent with instructions to oversee construction of the plant and to place it in operation.

However, when he landed in Borneo he found that the site chosen for the new refinery was in an uninhabited part of the coast. With a crew of 1,000 Chinese men, who he once noted worked for as little as 10 cents a day, they had to build their own pier and wharf and devise a means of removing the heavy equipment from the ship. In addition, they literally had to clear a trail through a snake infested jungle to get it to the selected site. Woodward completed the refinery and put it into service, remaining there for four years to do so. But soon after the plant was completed and in operation, he resigned and returned to Petrolia, eager to escape the unbearable heat of that region’s climate.  He didn’t rest long however, for shortly after returning to Petrolia he made a trip to Russia to examine the oil regions of the Czar. The final chapter of his career began in 1906 when he moved to Chanute, Kansas to become superintendent of the Kansas Co-operative Refining Co. where he remained until his death.

Woodward married Matilda Cornwell in 1869 and the couple had four children: Dewitt Clinton, George, Clara and Matilda.  Politically, he was an independent and in religion a Presbyterian. Fraternally, he was a member of Washington Masonic Lodge in Petrolia as well as Cedar Lodge No. 103 in Chanute, Kansas.

Martin J. Woodward died Mar. 9, 1912 at his home in Chanute, Kansas. He is buried there alongside his wife in that city’s Elmwood Cemetery.










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17.08 | 00:02

My name is Patricia Mcilwain , Kate Newton was a second cousin,. My mothers first cousin, Florence( Chambers) Young. Interesting story.

22.01 | 13:44

William Hay, my uncle, served on Petrolia as cook. My picture dressed in a navel uniform with an H.M.C.S. hat band, I was told was the " JACK" (Mascot)

19.08 | 12:32

I was Raised to the sublime Degree of a Master Mason on September 6, 1975 in a Masonic ??? Lodge #503 Ontario Canada.
My lodge Ira A. Beck #503 Battle Creek MI

05.06 | 03:34


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