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The Polish Connection

Gary May
Suite 202 - 148 Third Street, Cobourg, Ontario, K9A 5X2

The historic oil fields of southwestern Ontario are strewn with tales of success: John Henry Fairbank. Jake Englehart. John E. Crosbie. But perhaps the most poignant is the story of William Henry McGarvey. Rising from his beginnings as the son of a humble shopkeeper, to rubbing shoulders with European aristocracy, McGarvey ultimately died brokenhearted at how the clash of First World War superpower armies laid waste his empire.

Yet little is known about McGarvey’s European exploits and what became of his company and family after he died in 1914. Author Gary May is intent on learning more about McGarvey and ensuring he takes his deserved spot among Canada’s pioneers of oil. Last year, Gary travelled to the oil fields of Eastern Europe, and the streets of Vienna, in his bid to unearth more pieces of the McGarvey puzzle, and returned with an emerging picture of a man who is revered to this day in petroleum circles there as a key figure in the development of the industry.

McGarvey arrived in the Austria-Hungarian province of Galicia as head of the Continental Oil Company of Hanover, Germany, determined to learn whether the Canadian drilling methods he brought with him could be applied in conditions there. His early years in Galicia were marked by stories of subterfuge and low-tech industrial espionage, as local oilmen sought to understand his revolutionary methods. McGarvey was a hit, but his success did not come without controversy, as he found himself hauled into court over patents on the equipment he introduced.

One hundred and twenty years ago, the typical worker employed in those enterprises was from an agrarian, peasant background. McGarvey, aware of how foreign an industrial existence must be to them, employed a level of enlightenment with his workers and their families that placed him generations beyond his North American counterparts.

While he never learned the local languages, McGarvey was readily accepted into Galician society and recognized as a European businessman who introduced foreign capital to the country. The Canadian-born oil tycoon known to his friends simply as “Mac” was truly respected. His reputation was such that his visits to dozens of small communities across what are now Poland and the Ukraine, to put down test drilling holes, became the big news of the day.

If you visit Glinik, Poland today, you will still find the oil refinery and machinery factory McGarvey and his partner, Palestinian-born financier John Simeon Bergheim, built in the 1880s. The factory survived czarist Russian and German occupation, as well as the Communist era and today, under Poland’s new democratic regime, it still churns out equipment for the mining industry.

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