Old Cat Creek Oil Field Well

The dry hole marker for the first oil well recorded in the Cat Creek Oil Field, Petroleum County, Montana.

Editor's Note: The Rocky Mountain Oil Journal began its life as the Montana Oil Journal almost one hundred years ago. It was originally established in Great Falls, but is now based in Denver.

Earlier this year, in celebration of the newspaper's approaching century mark, they reprinted some interesting items from the old editions.

RMOJ has kindly allowed the Sun Times to reprint these stories. They offer an interesting look at life in the Montana oil patch in the early days of wildcatting in the Treasure State!

From the Mar. 4, 1933 issue:

Startling Growth of “Home Brew” Gasoline Industry Threatens State, Federal Gasoline Tax Revenues There are no less than two hundred “moonshine” gasoline plants in Northern Montana, and the number is steadily increasing.

This startling information was revealed by a casual survey by a representative of the Journal during the past week.

The situation is—or should be—alarming to federal and state tax-collecting agencies, for Montana refiners, and distributors.

Buying crude oil for $1.00 a barrel, farmers and others are making gasoline for their own use and for the use of their neighbors, and not a few are selling an occasional tankful to a passer-by and so far as can be ascertained, there is no way of stopping this business from growing to larger proportions.

Thousands of gallons of gasoline will be used this year on Montana highways, going tax free.

An idea of the traffic will be given to any who watches highways leading out of Cut Bank, where there is a steady stream of trucks loaded with oil barrels. Many of these trucks haul as many as 15 barrels. They buy the crude from the wells. It is sweet crude and offers no problem to home distillers.

Radiator As “Tower”

One farmer near Valier displayed a typical “refinery.” He has an oil barrel as a “still,” with pipes connected onto a tractor radiator, detached from the tractor for the purpose.

The barrel serving as a “still” is filled about half-full of crude, a fire is started beneath it, and as the oil is heated, the vapors pass out of the barrel, through the pipe, and into the radiator, where the vapors are cooled and condensed into liquid.

“We get about 25 gallons of gasoline out of a barrel of crude,” he said. “We use the balance for fuel, to heat the still, so we figure that our gasoline costs us about five cents a gallon.”

Less Than Amount of Tax The state tax is five cents a gallon and the federal tax is one cent a gallon, so the home distiller can manufacture his gasoline for less than the taxes alone. Owing to the fact that the Cut Bank crude is “sweet” and high gravity, it is convenient for this purpose.

Some of the farmers have been making their gasoline suitable for quick starting in cold weather by adding casing-head gasoline. This can be purchased at Cut Bank for ten cents a gallon.

The resultant product is as good, the farmers claim, as the ordinary skimming plant can manufacture.

“It knocks, of course,” said this one “distiller,” “but to me it sounds like the jingle of silver coins, and I enjoy it.”

Deny Responsibility

“There is no reason why we should not sell our crude,” said one producer when questioned about the sale of oil to “moonshiners.” “We get $1.00 a barrel at the well, which is more than we can get from the refineries. It is impossible for us to prevent farmers from getting oil, if they want to buy it. They can buy royalty oil, if the producers refuse to sell to them. We would like to protect the refiners and legitimate business, if it would do any good, but we see no way of doing it.”

The day is at hand when “moonshine” gasoline will be appearing in filling stations, north Montana refiners say.