Many Illinoisans may be surprised to learn that the state has a historic and illustrious history of oil production. More than 3.7 billion barrels of oil have been produced in the Land of Lincoln since commercial production began more than 110 years ago. Commercial production in Illinois began in 1905 with the discovery of oil in the shallow fields of Clark County in eastern Illinois, and the state emerged as the United States’ third-largest producer over the next five years due largely to productive Clark, Cumberland, Edgar, Crawford and Lawrence county fields.

Robinson was in the middle of the Illinois oil boom in the early 1900s.

Seismic exploration and drilling technological advances led to a sharp increase in Illinois production in the late 1930s. 1937 was a landmark year, as oilfields were discovered in Noble (Richland County), Clay City (Clay and Wayne counties), Patoka (Marion County), New Centralia (Clinton County), Olney (Richland County), Cisne (Wayne County), Beecher City (Fayette County), and Rinard (Wayne County). National Public Radio reported in 2021 that, “By the end of 1937, there were 200 new producing wells in Illinois: 85 in Marion County, with 18 of them on the Merryman Farm” near Patoka, where NPR reported a discovery by Adams Oil and Gas company set off “a southern Illinois oil boom that lasted half a century.” Illinois nearly tripled its oil output in 1937 alone and The Decatur Daily Review called it a “New Heyday in Little Egypt.”  But even bigger things were in store in 1938. That is when the Salem Field in Marion County was discovered and produced more than 20 million barrels in its first 12 months of operation from July 1938 to July 1939. Marion County produced 93 million barrels all by itself in 1939. Similar production was seen just to the north when the Louden oilfield in Fayette and Effingham counties was discovered. That field has produced more than 400 million barrels of oil since being discovered in 1937.

Salem was at the center of the Illinois oil boom of the late 1930s.

Spearheaded by the Salem and Louden oilfields, and bolstered by the discovery of new fields in Clinton, Clay, Wayne, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, White, Edwards, Wabash, Gallatin, Jasper and Richland counties, the state saw its oil production more than triple from 7.4 million barrels in 1937 to 24 million barrels in 1938. It nearly quadrupled to just under 95 million barrels in 1939 and then peaked t 147.6 million barrels in 1940. That total represented 11 percent of overall U.S. production that year and nearly 7 percent global production, outpacing Iran and Iraq’s combined output and exceeding the total production of every other nation with the exception of Russia and Venezuela!

The Tate #1 discovery well near Salem “set off the biggest oil boom in Illinois history” in 1938, according to one account.

The surge in production couldn’t have come at a more critical time for the United States, as Illinois’ oil production helped the Allied Forces emerge victorious in World War II. CNBC recently reported that six out of every seven barrels used by the Allied Forces during World War II was produced in the United States. Illinois was responsible for a significant chunk of that total, producing more than 470 million barrels from 1941 to 1945. In fact, FDR is said to have once stated “Thank God for Salem, Illinois” in reference to the oil boom in that part of the state during that time. Bolstered by the Illinois oil boom of 1940, the U.S. was the source of three-fifths of global oil supply by the time WWII began.

After producing 894 million barrels in the 1940s, Illinois enjoyed a second oil boom in the mid 1950s, as new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and large-scale secondary recovery projects regularly pushed annual production over the 70 million barrel threshold. Though production has declined since that hay day, Illinois production has remained steady over the past 20-plus years at an average of more than 9 million barrels per year. Some believe that potential future development of the New Albany Shale could push production back to previous heights.

Fore more on the Illinois oil industry’s rich history, be sure to visit the Illinois Oil Field Museum in Oblong. Also click the links below for more details on Illinois’ oil production history.

IOGA 50th Anniversary Booklet

Bradford Supply Co.

C.E. Brehm

Clay City Oil Boom of 1937

Crawford County

Crossville – White County

Dee Drilling 

Lawrenceville

Elmer Oelze Jr.

Podolsky Oil

Shakespeare Oil

Shulman Bros.

Wayne County History