Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

How We Made Gasoline

by Norris Chambers

   You youngsters pull up a chair - it's time to reminisce again. My old friend Ben Franklin, one of our early philosophers once said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Since this operation saved money, it could, therefore, be classified as a money maker. And back in the isolated area where we lived, making money wasn’t one of the easiest jobs we had. We were "dirt farmers" by the most literal translation of the term. In my early years I spent many hours following mules up and down the rows and milking the half Jersey cows that produced hereford-looking calves. We sold these little fellows for about $25.00 each at some stage in their development.

  But as the years passed, we went modern and bought an old Fordson tractor. It had an engine much like a Model T, except it was bigger. It had a large cast iron radiator in front and a long wide fuel tank on top. This tank held kerosene, which burned nicely after the engine got hot. There was a small gasoline tank used for starting the engine. As cheap as fuel was in those days, it required an item that was extremely scarce - cash. So we did as many others in that part of the county did. We decided to make our own tractor fuel.

  There were many oil wells in the area, and anyone who wanted oil felt free to help themselves. The price was so low that it barely paid the operators to pump it, and they didn't care if you took a few barrels for your own use. The process of making gasoline from oil was pretty well known among those in the area. It was quite simple. Heat the oil in an enclosed container, and condense the vapor by running it through a coolant.

  My dad and I built a small dirt tank about a half mile from the house, and before making the dam we ran a 1" pipe through it. On the low side of the dam, we dug a hole large enough for a five gallon can. This is where the fuel would come out. Above the tank we placed a fifty-five gallon barrel on some rocks and fitted the pipe to the vent hole in the top. When it rained and filled our new tank, we were ready to start refining.

  Two fifteen gallon barrels were filled with fresh oil and poured in the barrel. Then we started the fire under it. Before long fumes began to come out of the pipe below the dam, and shortly thereafter the gasoline began to run out in a small stream. The first that came out was very high in octane, and would evaporate from your finger as soon as you dipped it in the mixture. But as it continued to distill, it became less volatile. We found from experience that the first ten gallons that we got made good automobile fuel, and that the next six or eight gallons was composed of varying grades of kerosene. But all of it mixed together made excellent tractor fuel. After the first batch, we used the black tar-like residue to fuel a fire for the next cooking. Because of the heat involved, we never made more than once a day.

  This process continued for many months. I want to tell you about one time in particular. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon, and we had just fired up for the day's production. But today we had a vapor leak around the union that connected our cooling line to the barrel. Of course the vapor ignited, and started blowing a stream of flame down on the barrel. The barrel kept getting hotter, and the gasoline was shooting out of the pipe in a gushing stream. The fire down the side of the barrel was getting larger.

  My dad said, "You better run to the house and tell your mother that we are all right. It's going to blow. I'll stay here and catch all the gas I can." I took off in a fast run, jumping the fence into the calf pasture, hurried across it and jumped it on the other side. I was just below the hog pen, which was on the top of the hill. It was at this point that it exploded.

  The ground trembled, and there was a blast that sounded like thunder. I looked back, and there was a large, black ring about two or three hundred feet in the air flaming in the center. Soon the flame burned out, and there was a tremendous black doughnut high in sky. It was a beautiful sight, in an awesome sort of way.

  At the same moment the shock wave struck, the chickens got excited and ran squawking in all directions and, believe it or not, one of the pigs jumped out of the pen. It is unusual for a pig to jump. One might root his way under, but never jump. I will always remember that lost pig "oinking" and trying to find his way back into the pen.

  I continued my journey to the house and informed my mother that we had anticipated the blast, and all was well. She insisted on accompanying me back to the scene. When we arrived, everything was quiet. My dad was pouring his gasoline into the storage barrel and was grinning from ear to ear.

  "You should have seen how fast it came out before it blew," he told us. "The explosion went straight up, and didn't do anything except blow the top out of the drum." He was right. The barrel still stood there on the rocks, its top missing. The pipe that ran into the tank was curled up for about fifteen feet. The top was missing. We found the top several weeks later, a few hundred yards from the scene, well hidden in some brush. The barrel was burned so nice and clean that we used it for years for hauling water.

  We had some old clothes hanging on the bushes that we used for wiping our hands. About thirty minutes after the explosion, one of our few neighbors came hurriedly through the brush toward our site. He saw the old rags on the bushes, and he thought that was all that was left of us after the explosion. People as far as ten miles away heard the explosion and saw the ring in the sky. There were all kinds of guesses as to what happened. One theory was that a balloon had exploded at a picnic in the next county.

  It never occurred to us that our process was dangerous. If the drum had burst on a side, or on the bottom, all of that fire and smoke could have been directed toward my dad, and the gasoline he was catching could have ignited. We got another barrel and continued to make gasoline for several seasons without further mishap.

  This is not a project that I would recommend. Besides being very dangerous, it is no doubt illegal. (It might have been then).

  So stick to your profitable knitting - and above all, HAVE FUN!


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