Pondering the Parkerton Project

Sitting on the 1923 edition of Clason’s Guide Map of Wyoming is an undated photo of the Ohio Oil Company camp near Parkerton in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The newspaper clipping says: “Parkerton is the name of the new station on the Northwestern Railway at the Big Muddy oil field and from this station where a boxcar serves as office, waiting room and baggage room, tickets are being sold at the rate of one hundred a week. F. T. Graham is the agent. All Northwestern passenger trains will make Parkerton a regular stop. A short side track which accommodates 20 cars has been put in recently and the company states that another side track will be built as soon as possible to take care of thirty more cars.” Douglas Enterprise, January 01, 1917, page 1.

Trish Popovitch

Last year, I was looking for a friend’s house along the Old Highway. New to the area, the friend mentioned a few landmarks and the number of a county road as she gave directions to me. Could I find the house? I could not (not that I am very good at following directions under the most ideal of circumstances, mindyou). Eventually, I went home and messaged them only to discover they lived on a road called Big Muddy, off of Cole Creek Road.

I laughed and asked, “Why didn’t you just say you live in Parkerton?” Well, the friend could not say she lived in Parkerton because she didn’t know she lived in Parkerton. After I explained that her house sat on the site of the boomtown that grew up around the Big Muddy oil field, a town that historically had so many ties to Glenrock and indeed was quite a big deal around Glenrock to older residents and would-be historians, she just laughed. Finally, she had an explanation for all the pieces of oil drilling equipment her 3-year-old son kept digging up in the back yard.

Parkerton is a real piece of local history that, as my little anecdote reminds us, is disappearing from popular memory. That’s why, a couple of years back, I started the Parkerton Wyoming Project.

Trying to gather, house, research and accurately record in chronological order the historic artifacts and oral histories of Glenrock has been difficult enough. When I decided to start collecting the historical evidence of Parkerton’s existence, I didn’t realize just what I was getting into.

I assure you researching an oil boomtown is no small feat, especially when you mention Parkerton to area historians and are met with blank looks and quizzical glances.

My favorite response to my Parkerton inquiry is “Do you mean Salt Creek?” No, no I do not.

With so many residents living in the oil camps that made up the bulk of Parkerton’s structures, only there as long as a summer’s worth of pumping or until the company or share holders they worked for moved onto other things, it is hard to find out just exactly who, why and for how long everyone lived there. And then trying to accurately trace the movement of Parkerton families to Glenrock, mostly after the two school districts merged in 1923, was even more difficult. Then of course, there are the endless disputes among my senior friends about who actually lives in a Parkerton house and who just wishes they did.

Yes, Parkerton was supposed to be my easily digestible morsel of local western history but quickly turned into a veritable feast of statistics, figures, stories, family trees, Oregon Trail stops, and of course, the usual dozen or so “Trish, you have to speak to so and so’ with so and so sadly passing before enough, more or any tangible information had been gathered.

All in all, the history of the boomtown that helped ignite economic growth in this area and gave Glenrock many of its most unforgettable characters has been a long story whose beginning, end and chapters in between remain fluid, often unsubstantiated and in dire need of affirmation.

So, I decided that sharing the story, in manageable perhaps even digestible chunks, will not only help me sort out the narrative, but may prompt other locals to stop bickering about who owns what, who lived where and what camp Great Uncle Whatsit who married into that family from you know where worked in and actually bring me the primary source evidence and stake their claim in the history of Converse County’s boom town.

So for those who are still going “What on earth is she talking about now?’ I will explain. Parkerton is (was) the town surrounding the Big Muddy oil field that lies (lay) along the Old Highway about two miles outside of the Glenrock city limits. At its peak in 1923, Parkerton had a population of 2,500 according to the US Census Bureau—a number Glenrock did not reach until the oil boom of the 1980s. The post office was established in 1917. The town is named for H. Leslie Parker a Canadian driller who incorporated his oil company and started drilling on the Big Muddy in 1916.

At the height of its oil production in 1919, Big Muddy produced 8,000 barrels of oil a day from 200 wells. Today it looks like a smattering of derelict houses interspersed with the occasional new build. The landscape is littered with rusting debris, punctuated by the hollow shells of forgotten businesses and the empty storage tanks reaching to the sky, the rusting cenotaphs of a finite industry whose death knell seems to draw inevitably closer.

It is hard for many who travel the Old Highway to visualize the bustling industry and community that once thrived on either side of the road.

Hard, too, to imagine that the area now consisting of the spaced-out, modern ranch properties was once home to three schools, a dance hall, a post office, a grocery store, a hardware store, a train depot, a doctor’s office, a theater and dozens and dozens of small businesses that thrived for the boom years then fell away into the annals of Wyoming’s early
industrial past.

By the mid 1950s many of the wells had dried up and the oil companies merged or moved on. Parkerton began to lose its significance with children now attending the Glenrock schools and families moved into town, (sometimes bringing their house with them (sometimes not).

In 1954, the Parkerton post office closed, marking the end of the town officially.

Much of Parkerton today is on state land or land owned by the Valentine family (of Valentine Speedway fame, a family known for their love of local history), or of course, parceled off into manageable tracts for new families to create new homes and make new memories in a place where once hundreds and sometimes thousands lived and worked.

Having had the privilege of driving through Parkerton with June Lythgoe, the last baby born in Parkerton, or hearing stories of her father’s grocery deliveries to Parkerton from the late great Annie Danaher, Parkerton for me is alive and well.

My love of ghost towns began with Parkerton and sparked a curiosity in the western industrial past I did not know existed until a gentleman from California donated dozens of Big Muddy maps to the Deer Creek Museum back in 2008.

In the coming months I want to share what I have learned about Parkerton before it is too late, instead of waiting for sources to be validated or publishers to be willing. So maybe when you drive down the Old Highway, you don’t see the rusted tanks or abandoned buildings that mark the place where Big Muddy oil field and the town of Parkerton once stood. Rather, you see what I see: Wyoming’s industrial past thriving and alive with busy, working class families living and dying on the banks of the Platte. Just regular folk making memories, harnessing energy, eking out a living and telling the story of the turbulent yet beautiful expanse of the eastern Wyoming plains.

Join the online group the Parkerton Wyoming Project https://www.facebook.com/groups/971800746172107/


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