Jenn Burden is a Pennsylvania native. Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, her historic building love began early on with trips to downtown where she always looked for what she called “the castle,” more commonly known as the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail. Her next love was the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus where she hid away for hours studying in dark and quiet nooks. Jenn earned a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and worked for several years as an architectural historian in the cultural resource management sector. She currently lives in Oil City (Venango County) and is the Heritage Program Manager for the Oil Region Alliance, which administers the Oil Region National Heritage Area (“the valley that changed the world”).
Dear McClintock-Steele-Waitz House,
Since we’ve known each other for three years now, let’s keep it informal – to me, you are the Coal Oil Johnny House or even better, the COJ House. Before moving to the Oil Region, I had not heard of you or your most famous occupant – John Washington Steele, a.k.a. Coal Oil Johnny. The first time we met, I was there to turn on your two faux wood-burning stoves that are heated with propane, and boy, what an adventure that was and continues to be.
You are so different from the Victorian-style homes in the region that get all the glory, with your short 1.5 stories, four small rooms, and your lack of elaborate decoration. You are not even in your original location! Almost 20 years ago you were dismantled, had your later additions removed, and then reconstructed about a half-mile up the road in Oil Creek State Park. Since Culbertson McClintock built you c. 1850, you needed some support during your reconstruction, so now you sit on a concrete block foundation that is nicely hidden by your original foundation stones. You almost did not make it to your relocation either. In 1997, you were listed on Preservation Pennsylvania’s At Risk List and were just in sad shape.
You likely would not have survived at all if it was not for that rascal Coal Oil Johnny and the infamy he brought upon himself. In 1863, this then 19-year-old inherited his adoptive parents’ 400-acre farm, its lucrative oil wells, and you. He lost it all in less than a year having spent a fortune on parties, jewelry, gaudy clothes, and a custom carriage while in Philadelphia, not to mention all those gifts he gave and bad business deals he made while in the Oil Region.
You languished for a while, became a home to oil field workers, and ultimately were no longer needed. The local residents, however, always remembered your role in the historic oil boom days of the late 19th century and the impact Johnny had on the area (newspaper research found that he was mentioned in more than 450 newspapers throughout the country between 1863 and shortly after his death in 1922).
Heritage Area Preservation
After several efforts to save you do not come to fruition, the predecessor to the Oil Region Alliance ultimately made it happen. In 2006, your doors were opened to the public. Your original porch was reconstructed, your original floors and staircase were refinished, and you were given a decorative first-floor make-over to illustrate how you may have looked once the McClintock and Steele families came into their oil fortunes. Sorry your kitchen was not rebuilt, but it had been rebuilt so many times that no one had a good idea of what it looked like originally (also, you fit better on your new site without it!).
Since your relocation, thousands of people have visited you – whether they stop by during the break on their rides on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad excursions, visit during Open Houses, or seek you out for private tours. During these visits, I tell them about the McClintock family who built you, Coal Oil Johnny who made you famous, and the Waitz family who owned you for over 100 years. But, my favorite part of the story to tell is just about you. You are a rarity in the region. You are a second-generation home in the Oil Region as you are not an example of an early settlement house and you are not a grand Victorian built with oil royalties. You are what could have been found all over the area if oil was not discovered here – a modest home built by a subsistence farming family; small, but cozy for four people and with a little flair, exhibiting features of the Greek Revival style.
Your craftsmanship says so much about your strength to last 170+ years, enduring the brutal weather of northwestern Pennsylvania, the years of vacancy, and a relocation, where you needed some support, but who wouldn’t at that age? You are a testament to the “good bones” of older buildings and why they should be preserved.
I hope to continue our relationship. I’m planning to install new interpretive panels out front so that those stopping by can learn about the families who owned you as well as your own story. If COVID-19 restrictions abate, I hope to have people actually visit you this year to see your wide plank wood flooring, your new interior decorations, and artifacts about your most well-known occupant. I’ll still fight with the heaters so that you don’t freeze in the winter and answer security alarms when you are in distress. I ask that in return you remain steady so that we all can continue to learn what you have to teach us.
The Oil Region Alliance
The Oil Region Alliance manages the assets of the federally designated Oil Region National Heritage Area, which spans all of Venango County eastern Crawford County. Visit the website to plan a trip or discover heritage- and recreation-related attractions.
Stay in touch with the Coal Oil Johnny House by visiting the Facebook page and hitting “Like.”
Pennsylvania’s Oil Region is rich with history.
It was within the Oil Region that, in 1859, “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first commercial oil well, initiating a chain of events that literally changed the world.
But that’s our history.
Welcome to the future — your future. Welcome to the Oil Region. Whether you’re considering a visit, setting up shop, a permanent move, catching up with your hometown or brushing up on history, we have the information you need.