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49 Delivering Oil in the Good Old Days

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

This picture answers the age-old question,

“How many horses does it take to pull an oil tank wagon?”

We take so many things for granted. We buy groceries at the store but think little about how the products got there. We put gas in our car (or here in NJ, we have it pumped for us) without thinking about where the gas came from or how it got to the gas station.

In this picture, we see Edward Terhune’s oil truck on its way to or from a delivery. It might also have been picking up a fresh load of oil, gasoline, or kerosene to distribute. Edward (1877-1951) was a local supplier of oil, and his territory likely included Blawenburg. Note that this is not the same Ed Terhune who is affectionately remembered as the unofficial mayor of Blawenburg. His name was Edward Hoagland Terhune, and he was a relative of Edward P. Terhune.

Edward Page Terhune’s granddaughter, Judy Adams, doesn’t remember her grandfather since she was 2 ½ when he passed away. Her mother, Myrtle Terhune Hoagland, told her that her grandfather was in charge of the icehouse at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, down the hill from Blawenburg. The icehouse burned down over a decade ago, and the Institute is now Skillman Park. “Even though I do not have recollections of my grandfather, I do remember hearing that he was a very kind, gentle man,” Judy said recently.

It isn’t clear when this picture was taken, but it must have been before trucks had enough “horsepower” to pull the weight of a tank full of oil. If Ed’s oil tank held 1,000 gallons of kerosene, it would require enough horsepower to pull 6,800 pounds. If he were hauling fuel oil, his horses would need to pull 7,700 pounds (almost four tons) for a considerable distance. An average day’s work for the tank wagon team was within a 15 to 20-mile radius of their supply tanks.

Horses were much more reliable than trucks in the early 20th century since a strong draft horse could pull up to 1.5 times its weight. The range of weight of horses is between 800 and 2,200 pounds. Horses like those pictured would likely be on the top end of the weight range and could pull over 3,300 pounds each. Imagine that. Three horses pulling almost 10,000 pounds, or five tons! That’s a lot of horsepower.

Oil Used for Centuries

Oil isn’t a recent discovery. It has been used for many centuries. The Chinese drilled for oil using bamboo poles as early as 350 AD and burned the product to turn brine (salt water) to salt. They even used bamboo to transport the oil to the brine fields. Many other ancient civilizations used the petroleum products to lubricate, waterproof, and as a heat source. But it wasn’t until 1859 that the modern era of oil began in earnest in America. Edwin Drake saw oil floating on a creek in Titusville, PA and drilled a well to get more. He successfully drilled a 69-foot deep well that yielded 25 barrels a day. Commercial oil was on its way.

The Woodford well (left) and Phillips well (right) in Titusville, PA circa 1862.

In the second half of the 1800s, oil was commonly used as lamp oil or refined to become kerosene for lamps, cooking, and other uses. Prior to that, whale oil was used to light homes. As the population grew, whales became scarce and oil became more plentiful. Oil and kerosene were less expensive and more accessible products. Other changes came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Electric lights began to replace oil lamps, and gasoline was needed to fuel the combustible engines of cars.

Don Terhune, who grew up in Blawenburg in the house where I now live, is the former owner of Valley Oil in Hopewell. He said that the most common petroleum product around 1900 was kerosene, also known as coal oil because it was derived from coal. He said that early oil suppliers like his distant relative, Ed Terhune, would have spigots on the back of their tank wagons. Customers would fill five-gallon cans with kerosene to use for fuel at home. Don recalled that there was a 55-gallon barrel of kerosene in his back shed in the early 1940s. His mother would use the kerosene to fuel the kitchen stove.

There were two basic oils that were delivered in the early days – kerosene and bulk oil. According to Don, “Kerosene was cheaper than gasoline, so farmers started their tractors with gas and then switched to kerosene. Kerosene also provided more power than gas.” As late as the 1970s, Valley Oil did a big business in kerosene sales. Today, kerosene is not used as much, so less is produced, and the price has greatly increased. Bulk oil was used to lubricate tractors, oil wooden floors, and fuel pot burners, early versions of oil heaters.

A one-gallon galvanized kerosene container

When Was the Picture of the Tank Wagon Taken?

We can further pinpoint the time when Ed Terhune was likely delivering oil in his horse-drawn vehicle tank wagon. It was likely well after 1895, since he would need to be 18 years old to drive a team of horses like this.

While the first truck was invented in Germany in 1896, it had only four horsepower. This was hardly enough power to haul an oil truck. By 1923, the first truck with a diesel engine was built by Benz. It was awhile before trucks had enough power to pull a heavy load of oil. So, the tried-and-true horse power continued well into the early part of the 20th century.

When did Ed Terhune deliver petroleum products using horse power? It was likely after the invention of the automobile and before diesel trucks became popular. This puts our picture likely around 1900-1925.

Do you agree? Do you have some evidence that would help us figure this out? When do you think oil was delivered by horse power in Blawenburg and surrounding towns? Comment on the site or send me an email.


Blawenburg Facts

1. Stanley Dorey, who lived in my house from 1918-60, was one of the first rural route postal delivery people. He had a gas storage tank on his property to fuel his Model T Ford. It was removed years ago. I wonder if Ed Terhune delivered gasoline to him?

2. There have been three different locations in Blawenburg where you could get gas over the years.

  • There was a gas pump at the corner store which was owned by the Stryker, Van Zandt, Musselman, and other families over the years. It was located on the south side of Route 518 at Great Road.

  • You could also purchase gas on the north side of Route 518 when the convenience store was owned by the Mays and others. They sold White Flash gas. I remember waiting in a long line to get gas at this location during the fuel embargo in 1973-74 when OAPEC, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, cut the oil supplies to countries supporting Israel. This led to shortages and an oil crisis.

  • The third location was just north of the convenience store across from Blawenburg Cemetery on Blawenburg-Belle Mead Road, Route 601. It was a gas station and car repair shop. It has been renovated and turned into office/retail space and apartments today. Following the publication of this blog, Bill Van Zandt reported that, "The third location was owned and run by John Ficken for many years. He also ran a service station there."

There are no locations in Blawenburg where you can get gas or other oil products today.



Bellis, Mary. "The History of Trucks from Pickups to Macks."

Email interview – Judy Adams

Interview – Donald Terhune


Kerosene container - Etsy

Oil truck – shared by Peggy Terhune Querec, great niece of Edward Page Terhune

Oil wells - Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission


Copyright © 2020 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.

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