Review: refinery pioneering days in Lima
The Standard Oil Company, the Allen County Democrat wrote, “is not of the class that will allow a matter of a few thousand dollars to get in the way of the fulfillment of a purpose.”
Standard Oil’s purpose in late summer 1886 was to buy 102 acres from farmer James Hover on which the company wanted to build a refinery. “The thought of locating a refinery anywhere other than Lima never crossed their minds,” the Democrat wrote.
And so, “after weeks of negotiations,” Standard Oil paid Hover $20,789 for the country, as well as “a gift of $2,500 as a token of their appreciation for his close adherence to his contracts.” Hover then paid the Trenton Rock Oil Company $5,000 to relinquish their mineral rights on the property. Trenton Rock, a group of local investors, had leased land around Lima since paper mill owner Benjamin Faurot found oil in May 1885 while drilling for natural gas along the Ottawa River near North Street, according to some accounts.
Shortly after Standard struck a deal with Hover, the company sent John W. Van Dyke of Brooklyn, New York, to oversee construction of what they called the solar refinery.
The oil boom brought pride, prosperity, and some notable people to Lima, including Van Dyke. When he died in September 1939 at the age of 89, the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “Mr. Van Dyke’s career spanning more than seventy years virtually spans the history of the petroleum industry. He was a friend and former business partner of the late John D. Rockefeller and had made many contributions to the industry.”
Van Dyke spent more than 15 years of that career in Lima, running the refinery from the fall of 1886, when the first brick buildings sprout from the mud of the former Navy bean field, until he left for Philadelphia in early 1903.
Young Van Dyke was born on December 27, 1849 to a wealthy farming family in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. His family had decided to attend law school, followed by a stint at an uncle’s law firm in Detroit. Van Dyke had a different plan.
At the age of 17 in 1867, Van Dyke and a cousin fled to northwestern Pennsylvania, where oil had been discovered in 1859. Van Dyke began working in the oil fields of Venango County, Pennsylvania, first as a salesman before finding work as a drill and tool grinder.
Eventually he acquired two leases in Venango County and became a small producer. In the mid-1870s he was hired as an engineer at Standard Oil’s refinery in Long Island, New York, and when Standard Oil bought a refinery in Brooklyn, New York, Van Dyke was appointed superintendent there.
In 1886 Standard sent him to Lima to build and operate the solar refinery to take advantage of the newly discovered Lima crude oil.
It wasn’t an easy task.
“That September and October was so rainy that workers claimed they grew three inches a day because the mud stuck to their boots as they trudged through the fields,” wrote The Lima News in a July 1998 article. Two and three teams of horses were needed to haul the truckloads of equipment to the site.”
With the completion of the refinery, however, the work was not yet done. Lima’s crude oil, with a high sulfur content, was cruder than most. Fortunately, Van Dyke’s work at Solar brought him into contact with men looking for a way to clean it up, most notably a German chemist named Herman Frasch who had been hired by Rockefeller.
Refining company Van Dyke’s invention of a hollow water-cooled drive shaft for a sulfur removal furnace, coupled with chemist Frasch’s process, made Lima crude commercially viable, not to mention slightly less odorous. Among other innovations, Van Dyke patented a design for a railroad tank car to transport the oil and pioneered the use of acid to improve the flow of oil wells.
In the fall of 1889, after three years in Lima, Van Dyke married.
“John W. Van Dyke, Superintendent of the Solar Refinery, has returned to this city with his bride, who was Miss Emma J. Grimes of Mayville, NY, to whom he was married last Monday,” reported the Lima Democratic Times on October 14th. 19, 1889.
While Van Dyke engaged in real estate, collecting art and artifacts, and indulging in his interests in horses and dogs, his wife entertained. In November 1904, the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote: “Mrs. Van Dyke lavished hospitality with royal hands, and her home was a center of community activity,” she noted, “also volunteered for the work of establishing Lima Hospital and the Young Men’s Women’s Charity on a solid Christian Association.” .
In 1897, the Van Dykes moved into the sprawling Victorian mansion at 642 W. Market St., built four years earlier by Frank J. Banta, a Lima confectioner and confectioner.
“Extensive improvements have been made,” wrote the Republican-Gazette in July 1915. “A ballroom was added on the third floor and a billiards room on the first floor. The residence has become the scene of some of the most brilliant social events in the history of the city.”
The Van Dykes lived in the house for less than six years. (It sat vacant for a dozen years before being purchased by furniture store owner William Hoover in 1915. Today it is part of the Allen County Museum.) In January 1903, it was announced that Van Dyke and W.M. Irish, another early Solar official, were leaving Lima would.
“Lima’s loss will be Philadelphia’s gain, for both Mr. Van Dyke and Mr. Irish will go to the Quaker town to undertake new and important duties in their relations with the Standard Oil Co.,” wrote the Times Democrat in January 1903 .
Although he left Lima, Van Dyke remained associated with it for the rest of his life. After his wife died in November 1904, he married Lima native Edna Burton, daughter of Enos and Emma Brown Burton, who was 31 years his junior.
“Aspiring to be a great singer, she quickly became his protégé, with Van Dyke sponsoring many of her concerts,” wrote the News in 1998.
Under the name Edna de Lima, a nod to her hometown, she has performed throughout Europe and the United States, including at Memorial Hall in 1917. Van Dyke and Burton/de Lima divorced in 1921. She died in Mystic, Connecticut, in 1968.
Van Dyke’s connections with Lima continued in other ways as well. Between 1901 and 1939 he made many donations to the Allen County Historical Society. Among these donations were statues, bronze figures, an early American cradle, and a replica of the German liner Kronprinzessin Cecilie, the ship on which he spent his honeymoon with Edna. The replica, now housed in a glass case in the Allen County Museum library, cost $10,000 and was intended as an anniversary gift for Edna, who reportedly turned it down just prior to her divorce from Van Dyke.
By the time of his death in 1939, Van Dyke had risen to become chairman of the Atlantic Refining Company and was a multi-millionaire. Van Dyke, who was childless, committed $1.5 million to an education fund for children of Atlantic Refining employees. In his obituary only his first wife Emma is mentioned.
John Van Dyke is seen in his office in this photo. He has managed Standard Oil’s Lima Solar Refinery for over 15 years since its inception.
Reach out to Greg Hoersten at [email protected]