There has always been the family myth about where the money went. Cousins have wondered who the lucky one that got it all was. With all my research I couldn’t find who even had the mystery money.
My third great grandfather Zuver had been an oil producer when crude oil barrel prices would rocket to $120.00 (today’s value) a barrel in the early 1860s. He would also experience the bottom dropping out of the value as it plummeted to $23.00 (today’s value) just 10 years later. By the time of his death, his obituary headline would read “Was Once Wealthy,” having had close to a million dollars of today’s money in value. The money was long gone before his death in 1911 and he was living off of the mother’s pension of the son he lost in the civil war.
My second great grandfather has turned out to be another option for having had some wealth, but not to the same extent as my third great grandfather Zuver. Jacob West, known for his photography skills, was also involved in oil production. My latest research has been turning up information on his ventures.
About 1889 Jacob was venturing into oil production and got into a fight with Joseph E. Brownyear over ownership of oil property. By 1890 Jacob had leased land on the Mitchell and Van Vleck farm in Limestone, New York and was drilling wells. The Van Vleck family were very prosperous in the oil production business and had been involved for many years. Jacob’s number 1 well, drilled on the farm just outside of Limestone, would produce 10 barrels of crude oil an hour. After more than 30 years of production in the area, barrels per hour production had dropped considerably, this well’s production made newspaper headlines.
Prices for crude oil had dropped considerably by this time and would fluctuate from $16 to $35 (today’s value) dollars a barrel during 1890 – 1905. From newspaper reports, I noticed that Jacob had wells in Limestone, New York and in Lafferty Hollow, Pennsylvania. Jacob would lose 500 barrels of crude in two separate fire incidents. His crude tanks would catch on during electrical storms, burning his profit up in dense black smoke.
When Jacob died, he left his wife with over $30,000 in debt. In the bills you can tell he had a taste for fine made clothing and lived well from his profits in oil. It would take her 5 years to settle all of the accounts and was taken to court to settle some of his oil production cost debts.
Money may have been in the family from time to time, but it didn’t seem to outlast the maker to be passed on to any family member.
Photos taken by Mary Melissa Zuver West, Jacob's wife.