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Oil Wives keep the home fires burning

The hours are weird. The children never know when their dad will be home. There is no one around much of the time and, at one time, some of the families lived in camp where the housing facilities were rustic if not downright primitive.
Shirley Panton’s 50 years as an Oil Wives member is documented in the many pins on her club jacket.

The hours are weird. The children never know when their dad will be home. There is no one around much of the time and, at one time, some of the families lived in camp where the housing facilities were rustic if not downright primitive.

Life as the wife of an oilfield worker has its unique challenges, specific to the women who hold the fort while their husbands work long hours away from home, says Shirley Panton from her kitchen in the modest home where she has lived most of the past 50 years.

“We were never in the camp. We were always in a company house.”

Now 82, Shirley remembers using a cook stove fuelled by unrefined natural gas that came straight from the well where her husband, Lyle, was working.

This fall, at their annual convention, she become one of the few women in Alberta to earn a 50-year pin from the Oil Wives, an organization founded in Leduc in 1956 to provide a social network for the wives of oilfield workers.

“The husbands would be out in the skid shack and the wives would be in the camps and they knew nobody, so they got together and started the Oil Wives,” says Shirley.

Besides the social activities, the women would invest their efforts in raising money for local charities. The Red Deer club now has an annual drive in November to help the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter and adopts a family every Christmas, supplying gifts and Christmas dinner.

Shirley joined in 1959 at the urging of another woman who worked for the same company as Lyle.

Originally from Black Diamond, she and Lyle were married in 1946, right after the Second World War.

A bout of pneumonia during the war had saved Lyle’s life. He had been posted at a couple of sites in Canada, working as an aircraft engine mechanic with the RCAF, but got sick at about the time when he was supposed to go overseas.

A German submarine torpedoed the boat on which he would have sailed, killing a large number of the soldiers aboard.

Once the war ended and his stint with the armed forces was finished, Lyle decided to open a tire shop in their home town. It was good for awhile but the evolution from gravelled to paved roads started hurting business because tires were lasting longer than they had in the past, says Shirley. Lyle closed shop in 1959.

The couple bought a house in Red Deer and he headed to Leduc for a job on one of the new wells being drilled in Alberta’s booming oilfield.

Shirley was already familiar with the unique lifestyle of an oilpatch family. Her father, Albert Sanders, had worked on the first wells drilled in the Leduc field as well as in the gasfields at Turner Valley, just a few minutes away from their home in Black Diamond.

Lyle started with Canadian Well Services at a time when Alberta was in the midst of its first big oil boom. Ten years later, when the company restructured, he started his own consulting business.

Over the three decades in which her husband worked in the patch, Shirley recalls three distinct cycles of boom and bust. They were especially hard on the younger families.

People seemed to think the oil — and the money — would just keep on flowing.

Countless young families got caught with big expenses and no money coming in, and the ensuing problems took a toll on family life.

Of course, the money in the late ’50s wasn’t anything like it is now.

“When we moved here, we had to scrape up $200 for a down payment.”

But Lyle and Shirley were careful with their cash. They kept their original home in Red Deer, avoiding the temptation to splurge on something more elaborate.

Treasures collected in their basement rec room document the history of their life together, from model oil derricks and photos from the oilpatch to mementos gathered during winter holidays.

Through thick and thin, Shirley found her anchor among the friendships made through the Oil Wives.

When Lyle died in 1990, just over a year after his retirement, it was her friends in the Oil Wives who helped her carry on.

Once an international organization with branches in Eastern Canada, Texas and Scotland, the Oil Wives has contracted over time.

In Red Deer, the organization was at its strongest in the early 1980s, says Shirley.

“We have over 100 members at that time, for two or three years. And then it just gradually started sliding. Everybody got too busy or it got too expensive like for babysitters and stuff like that.”

Club historian Sandra Gress says the Red Deer group is now down to about 30 members, of whom eight took in the annual convention at Brooks in October where Shirley received her 50-year pin.

The Oil Wives have branches in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, says Gress.

In part, membership has dwindled because the men started earning better wages and getting longer leaves from work, says Shirley.

As time went on, more of the women were finding jobs with fewer stay-at-home moms getting together for meetings and the annual convention.

But there remains a core of women who have stayed with the group from the start, including one other member who recently received her 50-year pin and a few more coming up in the next few years.

Those members have remained active long after their husbands retired or left the industry, says Shirley.

“Once you’re an Oil Wife, you’re always an Oil Wife, as long as you keep up your membership.”