A Man Ahead of His Time
New Book, Groundbreaker, Reveals the Life of Petrolia Engineer Who Devised
Methods to Overcome Oil and Water Shortages
Recent headlines tell us the U.S. expects to be self-sufficient in oil by 2035. We’re told this will be possible because new methods, such as horizontal drilling, help squeeze more oil out of shale rock. The man behind these methods is the engineer Leo Ranney, and his life story is chronicled in Gary May’s new book, Groundbreaker.
Incredibly, Ranney devised horizontal drilling more than 80 years ago. But perhaps the most surprising fact is that this American lived for many years in Petrolia. From 1927 until his death in 1950, Ranney lived much of the time in the Fairbank mansion. He had married the widow Claire Fairbank, whose father-in-law from her first marriage, John Henry Fairbank, was Canada’s largest single oil producer in 1900 in this oil-rich area of Ontario. Ranney and Claire divided their time between Petrolia, New York City and Morro Bay, California.
Ranney obtained more than 300 patents for his technology and processes. Methods for finding and drilling water wells were among them. It has been said that Ranney’s work on water wells was the first true innovation in 2,000 years. In 1934, London England suffered a historic drought. Ranney constructed his water collector there and was soon producing millions of gallons daily. Lisbon had similar success with his water collector.
The brilliance of many other Ranney methods, such as horizontal drilling and extracting gas from coal, have been recognized only decades after his death. He was far ahead of his time. While much of Ranney’s work was aimed at reducing oil shortages, it was a time when oil was plentiful and cheap. His work did not make him a rich man.
Often, however, his work created headlines and he was also in contact with many powerful people. Ranney’s life story even drew attention in Hollywood and a film script was written. As a biography, Groundbreaker goes beyond his engineering work to depict the man in full. He’s put in the context of his family, his times and his many locales.
When writing Groundbreaker, Gary May sifted through a mountain of records, diaries, letters,
reports and photographs. Many are included in the book.
Groundbreaker is to be launched at the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs at 2 p.m. on
Saturday, April 6. May will be addressing the audience along with Charlie Fairbank, the
step-grandson of Ranney.
Gary May, of Windsor is the author of Hard Oiler! The Story of Early Canadians’ Quest
for Oil at Home and Abroad. A former editor at the Ottawa Citizen and the London Free Press, he has also written extensively about the oil history of Ontario’s Lambton County.
Groundbreaker will sell for $25 and will be available at:
. The Oil Museum of Canada, 2423 Kelly Rd., Oil Springs
. VanTuyl and Fairbank Hardware, 394 Station St., Petrolia
. Specialty Rubber Stamps, 4178 Petrolia Line, Petrolia
. The Bookkeeper, North Gate Plaza, Sarnia