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The ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Historic Collection

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In the decades following the Civil War, Baton Rouge never grew much beyond its pre-War size–about 5000 people.   However, the make-up of that population certainly changed a great deal over the decades. The end of the war meant the end of slavery and an exodus of now-freed slaves to the northern states and the western territories. As certain trades declined and other trades grew in importance, the relative number of tradesmen also fluctuated. The seat of government returned to Baton Rouge in 1882 with its yearly ebb and flow of legislators. Still, overall, the city did not grow.

Arial view of downtown Baton Rouge looking northeast from a point just downriver of the Old State Capitol, about 1950.

Arial view of downtown Baton Rouge looking northeast from a point just downriver of the Old State Capitol, about 1950.

It took the arrival of Standard Oil of Louisiana and the construction of an oil refinery in Baton Rouge in April 1909 to change all of that. Standard Oil of Louisiana was a major employer providing stable and ongoing employment for hundreds and then thousands of people. This in turn helped shape the degree and direction of growth for the city.

The ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Historic Collection provides a window into the growth of the company and the changes that growth wrought on Baton Rouge. The best way to see this broad-view change is through the hard copies of the corporate newsletters, many of which were included in the collection along with the original photographs published in the newsletters.

Shift change at the refinery in Baton Rouge, March 18, 1952.

Shift change at the refinery in Baton Rouge, March 18, 1952.

Special Collections now has a nearly complete run of all the newsletters published between 1924 and 1999. The first newsletter, The Stanocolan, focused on the refinery and was published from 1924 through 1956. The title changed to the Esso News in 1957 and continued under this name until 1966. In 1967 the title changed to the Baton Rouge Record and continued under this title until 1995. In this period a second newsletter began, Exxon ChemUnity News, 1989 – 1995. This second newsletter focused on the chemical plant side of operations to supplement the refinery side of operations. In April 1995 a new newsletter, Exxon Neighbor News, began publication. This publication was focused on and distributed to the community living around and near the Baton Rouge refinery and chemical plant complex. Beginning in October 1995 the Baton Rouge Record and the Exxon ChemUnity News were combined into Red Stick News. Our collection ends with the 1999 volume of Red Stick News.

Joe Kirkwood's retirement event at which he received his new bicycle, September 30, 1952.

Joe Kirkwood’s retirement event at which he received his new bicycle, September 30, 1952.

The ExxonMobil Historic Collection also includes several publications related to the petroleum industry in general and the Baton Rouge refinery and chemical plant in particular. These provide evidence of how the petroleum industry presented itself to the public through posters, brochures, and other graphical materials published between 1935 and the late-1990s.

In addition, there is a fairly large amount of material associated with the production of the Baton Rouge Record. The bulk of this material is photographs in one form or another, most of which was not published but is related to the individual issues.

Arial view of the refinery, part of a multi-negative panorama of the entire refinery and chemical plant complex, October 31, 1955.

Arial view of the refinery, part of a multi-negative panorama of the entire refinery and chemical plant complex, October 31, 1955.

The true core of the collection is the topical photographic material, much of which was associated with the production of the Baton Rouge Record newsletter between 1983 and 1996. Topics include community and events, people, places, environment, service stations, exploration and production, motorized equipment, petroleum storage, pipes and pumps, product transportation, products, signs, tanks and tank farms, and non-petroleum related photographs. An unusually large number of employee images are identified, especially the “Year Pin” events recognizing employees with 30 and 40 years of service. These events took place between 1951 and 1955 meaning these employees had started working at the refinery between 1911 and 1925.

The social side of the corporation is also extensively documented in photographs showing the activities of the ESSO Booster Club, especially their Miss ESSO beauty contests and subsequent appearances of Miss Esso – including one particularly curious shot of Miss ESSO on the roof of the administration building with a rifle; various sporting teams showing particularly heavy participation in bowling and baseball; the HESA Gun & Skeet Club gun shows and images captured on the shooting range, and; retirement parties for employees, many of whom are identified.

The number and variety of scenes within the refinery and the chemical plant boggles the mind. Here again, we are fortunate that these scenes are often clearly identified as to which part of the refinery or chemical plant it is we are seeing. Without that identification these images would be of marginal value to those of us who do not work in the petroleum industry.

Pat McCurmin, Second Floor receptionist, demonstrating household products created from petroleum, October 19, 1954.

Pat McCurmin, Second Floor receptionist, demonstrating household products created from petroleum, October 19, 1954.

Other photographs within the collection, taken together, provide a cohesive view of what it takes to find, extract, transport, refine, store, and distribute products created from “black gold.” A small series of ocean-going exploration ships of the GLOMAR type are included in the collection as well as a few images of off-shore drilling platforms. A more extensive series of inland waterway and ocean-going oil transportation ships shows how the raw material and refined products move between sites. Tank farms are an integral part of the process and they are well documented here. Of particular interest is a small series showing how petroleum products were taken from warehouse storage by truck for delivery to a ship for distribution much further afield in the middle 1950s.

This rich and deep collection provides an important resource about an industry that may well have single handedly moved Baton Rouge from a small country town at the beginning of the 20th century into the second-largest city in the state with a much more diverse culture at the beginning of the 21st century. Being able to study the growth of the corporation from their point of view and its effect on its host city is a rare opportunity.

Jessica Lacher-Feldman is the Head of Special Collections at Louisiana State University.

Posted in Resources, Special Collections Tagged with: ,

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