Baines Machine and Repair Works
Baines Machine and Repair Works remains much as it was when established in 1914.
Baines Machine and Repair Works is an enduring old landmark situated on a quiet, tree-lined street in the very heart of, what is often called, Canada's Victorian Oil Town -- Petrolia, Ontario.
Stepping inside this rustic, but fully functional shop, is a bit like returning to a bygone era. The shop is filled with every conceivable type of machining equipment: lathes, shapers, drill presses and milling machines, most of which, are of a vintage seldom seen in operation anymore.
But what is even more fascinating is the 19th-century style system that powers them. The machines are driven by a series of flat belts extending down from an overhead line shaft that spans the full length of the ceiling. This shaft was originally driven by steam power but was replaced in the 1920s with a single electrical motor.
Nearly everything in the shop remains just as it was when the father-and-son partnership of William and Albert Baines Sr. opened the shop’s doors nearly a century ago. Moreover, the products and services provided by this family enterprise also haven’t changed with the passing of time.
When they opened the shop in 1914, their main products were oil well valves, working barrels, and other parts used in the local oil fields, and that has never changed.
Both the Baines family and their machine shop are interwoven with the rich oil history of the area; indeed, both have been part it.
The Town of Petrolia is today a pleasant community of just over 5,000 and is one of the focal points in, what is known as the Oil Heritage District, an historic driving tour that cuts across central Lambton County.
Petrolia gusher hit in 1866
While oil had been discovered in Lambton County nearly a decade earlier, Nov., 22, 1866 remains a pivotal date in the town’s history. That was the day Capt. Benjamin King, manager of the Great Eastern Oil Company of St. Catharines, Ont., brought in Petrolia's first gusher and established the town as the major oil producing centre in Canada.
Almost over night the town’s population soared from 300 to more than 2,300 and for the ensuing 75 years the town’s fortunes would ebb and flow with the price of crude oil.
The early Petrolia drillers learned their trade well and were soon called upon to share their expertise with the world. At a time when few people ventured more than a few miles from home in their entire life, the “foreign drillers” as they became known, went off to open oil fields in far off and exotic lands the world over.
Today, the oil that once gushed from the earth in the Petrolia fields has long ago slowed to a trickle, but a number families in the area continue to make a living extracting “Black Gold” from the earth. Baines Machine and Repair Works has been an adjunct to that industry and it too has survived and continues to flourish servicing the local oil trade.
Interestingly, both have continue to function using the same 19th-century technology they began with. While the Baines enterprise is a true anomaly in today’s digital world, it’s third-generation owner, Albert Baines Jr., is also the type of man one rarely encounters anymore.
A soft spoken and humble man, although renowned among local oil producers for his technical expertise, he has a passion for local history and no matter how busy, always seems to have time for the steady stream of historians, writers, and the just plain curious, who seem to converge on his shop on a nearly daily basis.
"There's hardly a day goes by when an historian of some type doesn't drop in," he said, noting that Charles Fairbank, one of the area's largest oil producers had just left with a person from a local university who was interested in the shop.
While a modest man, Albert Baines Jr. beams with pride when he talks about his family's heritage and the integral part it has played in the local oil industry. "My grandfather, William Baines, came to Canada from England in the 1870s and when he arrived in Montreal there was a notice at the train station stating that stationary engineers were required in a place called Petrolea (as it was then spelled)," he said, adding that William had actually been a fireman on the railroad in the Old Country and was about to take over an engine when he decided to come to Canada. "He came here and went to work for Jake Englehart (a renowned Petrolia oil baron and one of the founders of Imperial Oil) and ran the power house in his oil field," he said, adding that he continued his employment with Englehart for 35 years.
He noted that everything in those days was run by steam, and his grandfather worked 12 hours shifts in the boiler house of the Englehart field.
“All he had to do was keep things oiled and fired up, so he had lots of time to make things on a lathe he had in the old boiler house . . . he got good at it . . he was just a handy old guy and he was still running a lathe here the day he died."
He added that his father, Albert Sr., learned his trade at the Stevenson Boiler Works, a once thriving Petrolia industry, and for a time had also worked at the Goodison Threshing Company in Sarnia. "He was a jack-of-all-trades, kind of a blacksmith," he said.
"These old guys could make anything, they had to, there was no where to buy the tools and equipment needed in th oil fields in those days so they had to make their own."
Built shop in 1914 from used material
Albert Jr. noted that just prior to the first world war oil baron Jake Englehart sold his oil fields to the Telsey family of New York State, and his grandfather decided he didn’t want to go with the new owners.
“He and my father decided to build a machine shop,” he said, adding that they constructed their present building using lumber from an old horse stable they had acquired. “They added on to it several times over the years,” he said, noting that a small brass foundry was added in the 1920s to make brass oil well valves.
“They bought a brand new lathe and drill press when they started business and we’re still using them,” he said, adding they also picked up a few used pieces, the last being in the 1950s. “When you run a shop on a back street in Petrolia, you can’t afford to buy a lot of new stuff.”
However, he recalled that his father did own the first acetylene welding outfit in town. “That was 1917 and it was really something because before that all you had was blacksmith welding and all of a sudden he had this gas welding,” he said.
Foreign drillers came home to run fields
Baines said there were more than 8,000 oil wells drilled in and around Petrolia during the late 1800s, most of them long ago abandoned.
“The big boom was all over by the 1920s and when the foreign drillers came home, most of them with a little money, many of them bought an old oil field just for something to do,” he said. “It’s a good thing they did because they kept those fields open, and some of them are still working today as a result.”
He recalled that some of the foreign drillers used to drop by the shop to visit when he first joined his father the business in the 1950s. “I never worked anywhere else, I came here right out of high school and that’s more than 50 years ago now, and at that time there was still a few of the old drillers around,” he said.
“They were getting old by then and they used to come in to visit my father.
They would sit around on chairs and talk about their experiences in the foreign oil fields. . . I just loved to hear those stories, . . . I guess I got to know about half a dozen of them, and you know, 10 years later they were all gone.”
Baines said Petrolia has always been a town of enterprising and colourful characters and he attributes that to the influence of the early drillers, many of whom were Americans. “A lot of people here seem to have had that American-style entrepreneurism and drive to get things done,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s a family in this town that doesn’t have a story to tell.”
Oil industry recovered in the 1980s
Baines said that while his shop has continued to operate, it also felt the crunch when the oil industry has faltered. “We have always made oil well valves during the winter when things were slow and stocked them,” he said.
“But I remember in the 1960s it got really slow and I was turning them out on the old turret lathe and thought to myself, this may be the last time I’ll be doing this.”
He said the business got really slow and oil properties were closing down in response to low oil prices. “It really didn’t recover until the 1980s but when oil prices took off, all of a sudden everybody was looking for an old oil property to restart,” he said. “And by golly they did and most of them are still running today.”
Baines noted that many of his customers have dealt with him their entire lives, “A lot of them are second or third generation oil men and most of us will never see 60 again,” he said with a chuckle.
He added that he didn’t know what the future might hold for the local oil industry or his business.
“I don’t know if a young guy could take it over and make a living here or not, it’s hard to say what could happen over the next 10 years,” he mused.
He noted that he often wonders if he would have been better off if he had taken a job in industry like many of his friends did when they left high school. “I would probably be retired now with a big pension,” he said.
“But you know, just the same, I really don’t regret staying here.”
Baines Machine and Repair Works remains much as it was when established in 1914.