Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter Six – The Oil Storage Yards” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

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One of the three canneries in West Denton ceased operation long before I remember, but the old building and part of the machinery stood idle just a short distance north of my father’s store. It was a good place for the kids of the neighborhood to explore and to use for the hide and seek game. During the early ‘20s it was demolished and eventually three oil storage facilities were built there, one each by the Standard Oil Company, the American Oil Company, and the Sun Oil Company. Each of these yards had large storage tanks for storing gasoline and kerosene as well as one or more buildings for housing drums of oil, the distribution truck, pumps for loading the truck, and other items.

The tanks for the Standard Oil Company were vertical, with one end resting on the ground; the others were in a horizontal position and rested on steel posts. I remember when the large upright cylindrical tanks were constructed on the Standard Oil property (the closest one to our store). Starting with a concrete base, the round bottom of the tank was constructed first. Then from the ground up each tank was constructed by riveting together large sections of curved metal approximately eight feet by four feet in size. These sections already had matching holes in them about two inches apart all of the way around and about one and a half inches from the edge of the metal. Each section was riveted to the previous section with red hot rivets in each hole using an air hammer. The curve was so calculated that when a certain number of sections were riveted together the results would be a cylindrical tank. The riveting process drew the sections together tightly, but when they cooled, the shrinkage of the red hot iron rivets drew the sections even tighter so that they would not leak when the tank was completed and filled with gasoline. For several weeks the rat-a-tat-tat of the rivet hammers echoed all over West Denton. As the tank construction progressed upward, scaffolding was built inside and outside of the tank upon which the men worked, one man inserting the hot rivet into the hole from the outside and holding a weight against it, while another man on the inside used the air hammer to clinch the rivet. The rivets were heated in a portable forge on the ground and tossed up to the men on the scaffold.

Pipes were attached to each tank and constructed from the tank to a small wharf at the water’s edge so that the oil tanker could dock at the wharf, hook up its hoses to the pipes and pump the gasoline and kerosene into the storage tanks. As soon as the tanks were filled, the tanker departed, sometimes even at night using one or two large search lights to assist in staying in the river’s channel. It would return in a couple of months and repeat the process.

I became acquainted with the crews of these oil tankers, especially the Standard Oil crew, and primarily the captain and first mate. Although they were strict about allowing visitors aboard the tanker, I was always allowed in the captain’s and crew’s quarters, partly because I worked around the oil yard and also because they knew my dad and often purchased items at his store, sometimes sending me to the store for them. The crews of these oil tankers were rough men and I received a kind of education from them that probably would not have received the approval of my dad and mother, although I’m now sure that my dad knew more than I gave him credit for. But since it did not take them long to unload the tanker, my exposure to their language and philosophy about women and life in general was minimal in terms of the influence it may have had upon me. Nevertheless, I was exposed to the language associated with playing cards and shooting craps as well as expressions about the wild and wooly ways of woeful women.

The oil yards also offered several other kinds of experiences not found elsewhere. I was employed there to keep the yards mowed and looking neat and this was my major job. The mowing of the grass was done by a hand push mower and the trimming of weeds around the tanks, under the pipes, and near the fence was done with a hand sickle. Often there was painting to do as the oil companies were particular about their facilities, desiring that they give a pleasing appearance to the community. Drums used for trash barrels were kept painted, and even the pipes and values around the tanks and the lines to the dock, as well as the gasolines engines in the pumping room, were painted regularly.

At the Standard Oil yard, the delivery truck was washed and cleaned every Saturday morning. This truck was a small GMC truck with a Buick engine and had a capacity of about 500 gallons divided into three compartments. It was filled by means of two gasoline driven engines in the pump house. When the delivery truck was to be loaded, it was driven up to a platform containing pipes that extended out from the pump-house and vertically to the top of the platform. Attached to each vertical pipe was a flexible hose with a nozzle on the end that could be pulled down to the opening on the top of the tank of the delivery truck. Each pipe was painted a different color indicating the type of fuel therein, either regular gasoline, high test gasoline, or kerosene. I would often assist Bill Carroll in cranking up these gasoline engines and filling the tank truck with the kind of fuel needed for the next delivery. In the pump-house, there were valves on the pipe lines that came from the storage tanks. The same gasoline engine could be used for pumping either of the three kinds of fuel by opening or closing these valves. Each of the three compartments on the tank truck had a cap that screwed on or off. The compartment was filled almost to the top but not quite, allowing sufficient space for the fuel to expand when the tank was exposed to the hot sun.

At the rear of the tank truck there was a shallow compartment for the storage of five gallon gasoline cans sometimes used in the delivery of the fuel. The valves on the end of the pipelines from the compartments were also in this rear section. These were spring loaded valves for the purpose of safety, meaning that the driver must hold the valve open when discharging the fuel in order to prevent an overflow. If the driver was sure that an underground tank at the delivery point would hold all of a compartment from his truck, he could prop the valve open thus avoiding having to hold it while a couple hundred gallons flowed out of the truck.

I liked to ride on Mr. Carroll’s delivery truck, and sometimes if his delivery was to be a short one he would let me go with him to make deliveries. This was against company regulations but Bill and my dad were good friends, Dad was a Standard Oil customer having Standard Oil pumps at his store, and after all, I was a sort of employee anyhow in the yards. Most gasoline customers would get two or three hundred gallons of gasoline at a time which would flow out of the tank truck by gravity into the underground tank (usually 300 to 500 gallons in size). Today, of course, underground tanks at service stations hold several thousand gallons, and delivery is made by large trailer trucks with a capacity of three thousand gallons or more.

Deliveries of kerosene were made to many country stores and general merchandise stores whose operators dispersed kerosene to customers from a fifty gallon drum in one or two gallon lots. The kerosene would be drawn out of the tank truck in five gallon cans, and while Mr. Carroll would be carrying in two of these five gallon cans filled with kerosene to the tank in the store, I would be filling two more. The storekeeper was at the mercy of our tabulation as to how many five gallon cans we dumped into his tank. Lessons in integrity and honesty were learned through my association with Mr. Carroll — it would have been so easy to stop filling these five gallon cans an inch or so from the top or to add one or two more cans to the count, but I never knew Mr. Carroll to be anything but totally honest.

Each Saturday we took inventory of the big storage tanks in the yard. This could be the most dangerous job attached to the oil yard work since it had to be done by climbing up to the top of the tanks, hand over hand, via a ladder mounted to the tank. Mr. Carroll always cautioned me to climb carefully and to hold on tightly. As we stood on the platform, Mr. Carroll opened a manhole and lowered very slowly a chalked steel tape into the fuel. The tape was weighted on the end and was lowered gently until the weight hit the bottom. When it was drawn up you could read the tape where the chalk ceased to show from being submerged into the fuel. This was done at least twice, maybe three times to assure accuracy. The reading on the tape in terms of inches was then converted into gallons from a chart that had been computed previously. Since the tanks varied in size, each had a separate chart. When I accompanied Mr. Carroll to the top of the tank on this mission, my job was to record his readings while he manipulated the tape. The number of gallons left in the big tank as computed from the reading on the tape, when added to the sales for the week, should equal the inventory for the previous week. Mr. Carroll was required to do this computation and make reports to the company headquarters each week along with the reports of sales, expenses of the tank truck, yard expenses, et cetera. I’m sure that these reports were used by company headquarters in determining when to send the next delivery by the river tanker.

It would be difficult to list all of the lessons that I learned from these experiences that I’m sure were helpful in later life. I soon learned that doing a good job in the oil yards and perhaps even doing more than expected would pay off. For example, after my father bought a 1925 Whippet, he stored his old 1917 Model T Ford. Later, after I got my driver’s license, I took the old Model T out of storage, fixed it up, and used it to deliver newspapers and to drive to school my senior year. The old car needed painting. Now the American Oil Company used a real bright red and yellow on their gasoline pumps. Beautiful colors, I thought. So you can guess where I got the paint to paint that old Ford a bright red with yellow stripes and yellow spoke wheels. I got quite a ribbing for doing it from my friends and newspaper customers, but it was a showpiece and I loved it. Needless to say, had I been anything other than diligent in my work around the oil yard, I would not have had a chance of getting that paint. I have always been grateful to Mr. Bill Carroll and to others for providing the many experiences that taught me responsibility and the importance of doing a good job in return for wages received.

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