Major Benjamin Stoddard Van Tuyl
Prominent Petrolia Merchant, Oil Man, and Civil War Veteran
When the American
Civil War ended in 1865, much of the human energy and resourcefulness that had gone into fighting was redirected to other, more productive activities. The U.S. economy soon began to rebound and as a result the demand for crude oil increased significantly,
causing its price to touch the then implausible level of $10 a barrel.
That, along with new oil discoveries in the Petrolia area such as the King Well in the fall of 1866 - that for a time, flowed at a tremendous
rate - was enough to entice a throng of American entrepreneurs (many of them with military titles) to hasten north to Canada with visions of striking it rich in the rapidly developing oil fields of Lambton County. Among this enterprising group was Major Benjamin
S. Van Tuyl, a man whose name, nearly 150 years later, continues to resonate within the town’s business community.
Benjamin Stoddard Van Tuyl was born Nov. 29, 1840 in Prattsburg, New York, the son of Thomas
and Survina (Stoddard) Van Tuyl. His father was a prominent merchant and lumber man with extensive land holdings in both New York State and Michigan.
Benjamin grew to manhood in his hometown of Prattsburg,
where he attended local schools and by the age of 20, was teaching business writing and accounting at the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York. However, at the outbreak of hostilities between the North and South he was quick to enlist with
the Federal Forces and throughout the ensuing four years of that horrific conflict, served his country admirably, attaining the rank of Major and taking command of a unit of the 161st New York Volunteers.
the close of the Civil War he was attracted to the oil boom in Petrolia and in 1866 he bid adieu to his native country to seek his fortune in the oil fields of Lambton County. Shortly after arriving in Petrolia he married Kate Cheney, also a native of Prattsburg
N.Y. and over the ensuing years the couple raised three sons: Major Thomas W. Van Tuyl, who later graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston and was a decorated officer and veteran of the Boer War; Bloss Van Tuyl, who was engaged in the explosives
business in Petrolia; and Louis Gleeson Van Tuyl, also a graduate of the Royal Military College who was later employed in the Intelligence branch of the Defence Department in Ottawa.
For a number of years after
arriving in Petrolia, Benjamin Van Tuyl was engaged as a drilling contractor and in the 1867 Lambton-Kent-Essex Gazetteer was listed as a Petrolia-based Driller, Oil Operator and Land Agent.
However, in 1874
he joined forces with J.H. Fairbank in the hardware business and the well-known firm of Van Tuyl and Fairbank was born. The partnership flourished and over the ensuing years the business expand to include satellite stores in Oil Springs and Bothwell
as well as a sprawling new store on Petrolia’s main street. At its pinnacle, Van Tuyl and Fairbank was said to have been the largest hardware store West of Toronto and to this day remains an anchor in Petrolia’s business community.
Van Tuyl remained an active partner in the business until his untimely death in 1900 at the age of 59. In her book, “The Story of Fairbank Oil” author Pat McGee noted that when he died Maj. Van Tuyl had been
J.H. Fairbank’s friend and valued partner for more than 26 years. She added that as a measure of respect and gratitude the Fairbank family has never removed his name from the business.
In religion Major
Van Tuyl was an Anglican and in politics was said to have supported the ideals of the Liberal party. However, as prominent as he was in the affairs of the town, politics appeared to be of little interest to him, having never served on municipal council, or
for that matter, in any other political capacity.
His primary interest outside of family and business appeared to be with the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order once prominent in Petrolia. It was founded
in Washington D.C. following the Civil War and promoted the principal of Universal Peace and Good Will. It’s impossible to know his motivations but as one who had experienced first-hand the chaos and violence of the Civil War, one could surmise
that an organization with peace and harmony as its central theme would hold a certain appeal to him. Nevertheless, Maj. Van Tuyl was a devoted member of Petrolia Lodge No. 1, Knights of Pythias, and at one time served as that order’s Vice
Grand Chancellor for all of Canada.
Benjamin Van Tuyl died suddenly on Dec. 19, 1900 from complications related to an abscess that had formed in his head. His funeral service, which was under the auspices
of the Knights of Pythias, was conducted from his stately home on Warren Ave. (now the McCallum residence) and officiating as honorary pallbearers were his business colleagues and contemporaries J.H. Fairbank, J.L. Englehart, George Moncrieff, Charles Jenkins,
Frank Smith and P. Taylor.
He is interred in the family plot at Hillsdale Cemetery.