Oil pioneer, foreign driller, real estate broker, telegrapher, auctioneer, politician and educator
Petrolia’s oil pioneers were without question an eclectic and adaptable group. However, few were more versatile and enterprising than James Peat, one of the town’s early and most highly esteemed residents.
Peat was born April 9, 1842 in a small village near Glasgow, Scotland.
When just an infant, his parents, like many others at the time, decided prospects looked better in the new world and with their young family in tow moved to Canada, settling in Oxford
County near the present-day City of Woodstock, Ont.
It was here that family patriarch, Thomas Peat, homesteaded and carved a productive farm out of the area’s virgin forest where he continued a successful life of farming until his death in 1873.
One of 10 children, James Peat got his early education in one of Oxford County’s one-room schools and later attended the Woodstock Grammar School.
At the age of 18 he became a school teacher and for four years taught elementary school in Blenheim
Township before taking a position at the London Commercial College as an instructor in business mathematics.
When the so-called Fenian Raids ensued in 1866 he was among the many young men who answered the call to defend Queen and Country signing up
with a London-based militia company.
Following British North America’s brief but unfortunate skirmish with the Fenian Brotherhood, Peat decided to try his hand at prospecting for gold in Hastings County.
He organized the Royal Canadian
Mining Co. of Toronto and for two years was its acting manager.
While the company was successful in finding a number of gold deposits, none were of commercial value so he subsequently gave up on the venture and instead tried his hand a prospecting for
“black gold” in the then newly-discovered oil fields of Pennsylvania.
He brought in a number of good wells in the Pennsylvania fields and it could be said that it was here, with several years of practical experience in geological engineering
and drilling, he laid the cornerstones of what would become a long and successful career in the oil business.
The Pennsylvania experience in turn attracted him to Oil Springs at the height of its oil boom, where for a couple of years he was also engaged
in oil production until removing to Petrolia in 1870, bringing with him the first cable drilling rig ever used in Canada.
He met with continued success in the Petrolia fields, drilling many of area’s early wells.
He soon became a much sought-after
drilling contractor for both oil and water wells and his operations soon spanned the entire North American continent.
In 1898, on contract with a British syndicate, he personally prospected for oil in Cuba but found the island unfavourable for
Back at his Petrolia headquarters, in addition to his oil fields, he also operated a successful real estate, insurance, and money-lending business, which was continued well into the second half of the twentieth century by his son, Convrey
(Con) Peat, also a well-known figure around town.
As some of the older folks in town will remember, the downtown office of James Peat and Son also doubled as the CNR Telegraph office and was a popular meeting place for many of the gentlemen in town.
If that weren’t enough, the elder Peat was also a popular auctioneer, conducting many local auction sales.
James Peat also ran, what may have been, one of Canada’s first personnel services.
Renowned throughout the world as a petroleum
expert, he had many connections with large oil companies who would contract with him to assemble crews of experienced local oil drillers, who at that time were in demand in every corner of the world, a group that of course became known locally as “the
Was prominent in municipal affairs
In politics James Peat was a Liberal and was well known for travelling around the riding at election time delivering stump speeches
on behalf of the local Liberal candidate.
During his time he was credited with helping elect a number of prominent Members of Parliament including J.H Fairbank, Timothy Pardee, Charles Mackenzie and James Lister.
He was a long-time member of
the Petrolia High School Board and served on Petrolia Town Council on numerous occasions over a span of many years.
Fraternally, he was member of Petrolia Masonic Lodge No. 260 and at the time of his death was the last living charter member of that
organization. His picture still hangs prominently on the walls of the present lodge building.
He was also a long-time and active member of Petrolia’s St. Andrew’s Society as well as the now defunct Sons of Scotland.
In religion, he
was a staunch Presbyterian and was a member of the board of managers of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church during the construction of its present edifice.
James Peat died in his stately old Greenfield Street home on Feb. 9, 1936 at the age of 93,
among the last of the town’s original oil barons.
He is interred at Hillsdale Cemetery.