Hell’s Half Acre: Early Days in the Great Alberta Oil Patch

Western Canadian historian David Finch has spent two decades listening to the oral histories of men and women who lived and worked in the region’s oil patch. Recognizing that few of them kept diaries or preserved their letters, he sat down with them and tape recorded their living memoirs, often in their later years when age gave them a sense of perspective and judgment.

Hell’s Half Acre, his oral-history based account of the Turner Valley oil and natural gas field, is, in consequence, an engaging, lucid and literate account of the people of Alberta’s first world-scale oil and gas field – from its discovery in 1914, through the decades when it was the largest in the British Empire, until it was displaced by the Leduc oil discovery in 1947.

This is the story of the way people lived and worked and sometimes died in the oil patch before what is sometimes referred to as the “modern” petroleum era. It tells of what gave their lives meaning and purpose; of how they raised their families; of what they did to bring colour to the grueling, grimy, gritty work of digging and drilling wells, building and running gas plants and pipelines, and surviving when the work ran out.

This is not a story of companies or public debates or piles of riches, although Mr. Finch has deftly woven in the essentials of that kind of history to give the personal records context, reference points and a timeline.

This is, rather, the legend brought to view of the social culture that grew up in the first decades of the Alberta oil patch. Mr. Finch validates the often-repeated precept that working the oil and gas upstream is –or at least once was — not so much a career or a job as a way of life.

The power of this book – and it is both moving and illuminating – comes from the care Mr. Finch has taken to let his subjects speak for themselves. He is a careful, disciplined historian who eschews any attempt to embellish or aggrandize his material, and the text is all the more dramatic for his deliberate avoidance of literary contrivance. This is a book for plain readers….

Mr. Finch has been fascinated by the lives and times of these people since work on his Master’s thesis at the University of Calgary led him to his first investigation of the social history of the oil industry. He has played a leading role in the development of the Glenbow Archives and Library’s petroleum oral history project.

Hell’s Half Acre brings the product of half a career of scholarly endeavor vividly to life, and gives access for a wider public audience to the lives of the long-gone people who peered into the camera’s lens from the muddy roads and dusky drilling rig floors of Turner Valley when its rolling landscape was punctuated, year after year, by the masts of dozens of drilling rigs.

Those rigs have given way to sprawling country residential estates and highways populated by sleek SUVs as the urban pressure wave pushes out from Calgary. The stories of the people who launched that city of the 21st century on its path to wealth and world significance back in the 20th century are found in Mr. Finch’s book and, in an unexpected way, make the present more understandable.

Franks Dabbs in © Canadian Centre for Energy Information, September 2005