John McMillan:Pioneer Oil Man and Refiner

In keeping with his wishes, John McMillan's coffin had holes bored in it and melted paraffin wax poured in to preserve the body. It was one of the strangest burials in he history of Petrolia.

During the later years of the 19th century Petrolia-based oil man and refiner John McMillanwas widely known as a giant of Canadian business with enterprises spanning Ontario, Quebec and the United States. However, when he died in 1891, he was also renowned locally for having one of strangest burials to have ever taken place at Hillsdale Cemetery.

John McMillan was born at Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland May 25, 1825, the son of Richard and Janet (Shaw) McMillan, his father being a prosperous woolen manufacturer in Scotland.  At an early age John McMillan began work in his father’s factory and diligently learned the nuances of the textile trade.  Being a born entrepreneur, at age 21, he moved to Glasgow and commenced business on his own account in the manufacture of fancy dress goods, becoming highly adept at the delicate art of predicting trends in women’s fashions.

He continued in that business for a number of years and was highly successful until the advent of the American Civil War, which caused a severe depression in the fashion industry. Nevertheless, in 1862, through connections with the Hon. George Brown, the founder of Bothwell, Ontario, he was attracted to the oil boom in that locality and dispatched some Scottish miners there to prospect for black gold, making him among the first oil operators in that field.

In 1865, he moved to London, Ontario with the intention of looking after his oil interests from there. However, shortly after he sold out his interests in the Bothwell field and moved to Petrolia, where he also engaged in oil production, but was also attracted to opportunities in the refining industry. Consequently, he returned to Scotland, assembled some investors, and quickly organized a company to build a refinery in Petrolia with himself as general manager. That company later merged with other entities to become the Canada Oil and Mineral Company.

However, McMillan later became involved in a partnership with Harry Kittredge, a seasoned oil man who had also drilled in the Bothwell field. Together they formed McMillan, Kittridge & Co. and in 1880 built a refinery that employed a number of innovative processes. One of which was a ground-breaking methods of refining illuminating oil that removed sulphur from the crude oil, a process that had been developed and patented by Mr. Kittridge.

In the early days of refining most stills, as they were called, were small scale and the combined capacity of all the refiners in the area at one time was only 500 barrels a week. According to author Victor Lauriston in Lambton’s 100 Years, a refinery in the early days consisted of a long still of cast iron, shaped in the form of an ink bottle, with condenser tubes coming out of the neck.

He noted that the first major departure from this type of still was introduced by John McMillan in 1869. He added that it was McMillan who first discarded cast iron and utilized boiler plate, building a vessel 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet long with a capacity of nearly 1,000 barrels per week.

Using McMillan’s pattern, a competing company, Parson and Company, in concert with the Carbon Oil Company built what was known as the “Big Still,” an object of awe and amazement at the time, for it held 2,500 barrels at one time and was constructed on the site of what would later become the Imperial Oil Company.

The Big Still operated satisfactorily for about a year but due to a glitch of some kind it exploded, destroying everything in its vicinity. It took nearly a year to rebuild it and on its first run it exploded again with such force, according to Lauriston, “it blew the company sponsoring it into bankruptcy.” 

Nevertheless, through his energy and attention to business, McMillan soon became one of the largest and foremost oil producers and refiners in Canada with business connections reaching into Eastern Ontario, Montreal and Quebec City.

When the rail companies were holding oil produces hostage to high freight rates, McMillan was among the first to adopt the system of transporting oil in bulk rail tanks. He set up barrelling plants in Kingston and Montreal from which he serviced his customers in Eastern Canada.  It was these business interests that caused him to move to Montreal in 1871. However, he returned to Petrolia in 1885 and lived the rest of his life in his large stately home on Garfield Ave., which is today an elegant Bed and Breakfast and certainly one of Petrolia’s more prominent heritage homes.

Among his business interests outside of the oil industry, McMillan owned a malt manufacturing business in Kingston and exported his product to American breweries. He also had an interest in the Cornwall Gas Company, the London Furniture Company, and was president of the Germania Brewing Company of New York.

In politics he was a Liberal, and in religion a member of the Church of England.

John McMillan died April 17, 1891 at his home in Petrolia.  He had been in failing health for some time, suffering from the effects of Bright’s Disease and diabetes.  But apparently in his final years he became obsessed with the hereafter. One of the by-products of his oil refinery was paraffin wax and McMillan decided he wanted to be preserved in wax after his death. So according to his wishes prior to his burial  holes were bored in his coffin and melted paraffin wax poured in to preserve the body. His motivations remain unknown, but it was undoubtedly one of the more macabre burials ever to have taken place at Hillsdale Cemetery.






The McMillan House on Garfield Ave. is today an elegant Bed and Breakfast and one of Petrolia's more prominent heritage homes.

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Latest comments

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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