May 18, 2011----Thanks to a local oil man’s generous gift, the thousands of people who enter Petrolia’s Victoria Hall each year, will now be exposed to the area’s rich oil heritage in a whole new way.
Oil Heritage Windows at Victoria Hall, Petrolia
Images from the days when Petrolia was the oil capital of Canada will now appear in two colourful new stained-glass windows located in the historic building’s entrance way.
Local oil man Charlie Fairbank commissioned the windows, which were designed and created by the distinguished Canadian stained-glass artist Christopher Wallace, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Fairbank Oil, the world’s oldest family-run oil field.
Christopher Wallis, a resident of the Grand Bend area, is a nationally- renowned stained-glass artist whose exceptional windows grace many Canadian public buildings.
His work can be seen in such prominent places as Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, as well as numerous universities, churches and cathedrals across Canada.
He has created more than 800 works and his enormous stained-glass windows in Victoria B.C.’s Christ Church Cathedral have been hailed as the finest work of art in the city.
Fairbank Oil story began in 1861
Speaking at an unveiling ceremony May18, 2011, Charlie Fairbank, the fourth generation to run Fairbank Oil, noted that his family has been part of the fabric of the Petrolia community for its total existence.
He said the story of Fairbank Oil began in 1861 when John Henry Fairbank, his great-grandfather, arrived in Oil Springs and began producing crude oil from his first hand-dug oil well.
He added that the same year Petrolia received its name and a group of Boston gentlemen likewise dug 40-foot wells in the Petrolia flats, found heavy oil, and built a refinery.
He noted that J.H. Fairbank later described the situation thus: “During that time the infant Petrolia slept while Oil Springs budded, blossomed and faded. It’s rock poured out rivers of oil and the oil ran down the river.”
He added that in 1865, after the Oil Springs oil boom had faded, J.H. Fairbank moved to Petrolia.
“He was the founder of the town, built a railroad, established a bank, opened an oil well supply, hardware store, and boiler shop,” he said.
“He was a farmer, Member of Parliament, and the largest oil producer in Canada.”
Fairbank said that near the end of his life, his great-grandfather summed up all these activities by remarking that he had “given the world much light,” referring to the thousands of gallons of kerosene that had been produced from his crude oil.
“Like John Henry, Petrolia’s years of economic glory were played out in the age of lights and kerosene, before the automobile changed everything,” said Charlie Fairbank.
Nevertheless, he noted that there were many great themes played out during that era, many of which are still being played out today.
“Problems of over production, preferential railway rates, friction between producers and refiners, and the always present threat of predatory foreign control,” he said.
Fairbank also pointed out that when they ran out of places to drill in Lambton County, Petrolia’s drillers traveled the world, discovering oil and passing their knowledge along.
However, he said in time Petrolians were forced to recognize the simple fact that oil fields are anchored in rock, cannot be moved, and eventually decline, while refineries are portable.
Consequently, he said when Imperial Oil, the town’s largest employer left town, the community remained calm and carried on, accepting that a time of change had arrived.
“Then the foreign drillers began coming home to the old town, Petrolia, the best town on earth,” he said, recalling that during his childhood, the local oil fields continued to produce, although their volumes had greatly diminished, but the town’s attachment to its oil heritage remained very strong.
“We couldn’t escape it, our senses were constantly assailed by the smell of crude oil and sulphur water and the singing of the jerker lines,” he said, adding that the oil wells remaining in operation today pump much cleaner and quieter.
He suggested that today the community needs something less brutal than sensory assaults to remind it of its unique culture.
“An aesthetic reminder of a phase in our planet’s development would help,” he said.
“ And that is precisely what Christopher Wallace’s magnificent windows will do.”
Fairbank called Wallis “a poet of light” and said he looked forward to enjoying the changing complections of the faces on the windows as they pass through the seasons, weathers, and days ahead.
Oil story presented in a medium unchanged for thousands of years
Mayor John McCharles said over the years the Fairbank Family has been very kind and generous to the town and the donation of the stained-glass windows was just another example of their commitment to the community and the preservation of its unique place in history.
“Everyone who comes into this building will see those wonderful windows and I’m sure they will express their appreciation to the Fairbank family,” he said.
Bob Tremain, Lambton County’s cultural director, said he was pleased to comment on this latest addition to Victoria Hall, which he pointed out was a nationally designated historical site.
Tremain said Petrolia has a unique heritage and is often referred to as the town that oil built.
However, he said the discovery of oil was only the first page.
“In reality Petrolia was built by creative minds and there are many ways of being creative: we can dance, tell stories, arrange bits of glass within a lead frame, or find oil, coax it from the rock and bring it to daylight,” he said, adding that it could be argued that Petrolia has literally led the world in creative industries.
“Today we are here to celebrate the brilliant creativity of artist Christopher Wallis, who is an artist who happens to work with buildings,” he said.
He congratulated Wallace for his talent and arrangement of light, and for using his medium to tell a story that is so important to the Petrolia community.
Martin Dillon, chair of the Petrolia Heritage Committee, said the windows are not only a work of art, but a historical document that will continuously be on display in the building’s entrance.
“I don’t think the Fairbank family could have chosen a better spot to display this art when you consider that J.H. himself was one of the inspirations for the construction of Victoria Hall,” he said.
He added that the Heritage Committee would be including the stained-glass windows in the description for the building’s official designation.
Artist Christopher Wallis said he sincerely hopes the windows and their story bring as much pleasure to their viewers as he received in developing their design and making them.
He encouraged anyone viewing the windows to consider that they celebrate 150 years of Fairbank Oil using a medium and technique that hasn’t changed for thousands of years.
“In a rapidly changing world it is somehow heartening to have a permanent record of one of Petrolia’s founding businesses, still in operation and relying on a 150 year-old technique (the jerker line system) in this 21st century,” he said.
A large crowd turned out for the dedication of the windows and the reception that followed in Victoria Hall.
Oil Heritage Windows at Victoria Hall, Petrolia