August 4 – 10, 2017Vol. 19, No. 9

Belgrade's Oil Embargo of '73/'74

by Rod Johnson

WHAT oil embargo you ask? Well, for those who don't remember or were too young to know, let me provide a quick basic history lesson. The following paragraph is public information supplied by the Office of the Historian of the United States of America.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) imposed an embargo against the United States. This was done in retaliation for the United State's decision to resupply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations. The onset of the embargo in October 1973 contributed to an upward spiral in oil prices with global implications. Barrel oil prices doubled and then quadrupled, sending gas prices at the pump skyrocketing.

This is when the people in Belgrade and every other town and city in America became seriously affected. Lines at the gas pumps were very long in high population areas; heating oil prices became untenable for many; and many other products that required oil for production (most all) became much more expensive.

In November President Nixon's White House team began Project Independence. This included the Strategic Petrol Reserve program, which called for the stockpiling of a much larger reserve of oil, a reduction in the speed limit to a maximum of 55 miles per hour, and later under President Ford, economy standards in the production of cars and trucks.

Americans with the skills and resources began to do what they could to become more independent both at the commercial and personal levels. One of the undertakings that was done in our little town of Belgrade was going back to burning wood for winter heat.

Twenty and thirty years prior, many people had taken out the wood stoves and enjoyed cheap and easy oil. For instance, when I first bought heating oil in 1971, the price was 17¢ per gallon, 16¢ if you paid the driver.

During the embargo, heating oil prices increased severalfold as did gasoline prices. New chimneys were being built all over town and other old ones being relined. Wood fired boilers for home heat and domestic hot water were being invented by large companies and do-it-your-selfers in home workshops. Wood splitters became commonplace. Solar was talked about, experimented with and installed in some areas, as well as warm air collection, storage and retrieval systems.

Some of the homegrown heating systems were quite effective, but on occasion they were a folly. Just to throw some humor into this story I want to share a quick story of a personal experience when things went awry during a cold winter night in my house.

My neighbor Bill Pulsifer and I had co-built a nice wood splitter that we were both using to split somewhere around 10 cords of wood each. We were both tinkering with our heating systems, oil-fired baseboard hot water, to incorporate a wood stove or boiler to at least supplement the oil use. We both ultimately ended up with wood boilers tied into the heat loops, but before that we built a copper coil out of fittings and fit it inside my wood stove on the main floor. We kept a wood fire there 90% of the time and a continuous circulator running to circulate the water throughout the house.

Here's the folly:

One cold February night during a wet snow storm, the wires went down and we lost power. While we were sound asleep the circulator stopped, and our theory that the water would still circulate some was apparently not correct. The pressure increased in the wood-heated coil to a point of pushing apart a silver soldered copper elbow joint and water quickly flooded the stove.

The water and ashes pushed the stove door open and when the power came back on, the boiler called for water and the water pump came on. For some period of time, probably 2 hours or more, ash-tainted water flooded the floor. Waking at 5 a.m. to a cold house, I quickly discovered the disaster of 4 inches of water in the dining and kitchen rooms with water leaking out under the entrance door and freezing on the outside step.

After some emergency re-plumbing of the broken heat loop and two days or so of cleanup, we bit the bullet and asked Paul Hanna to bring and install a New York wood boiler. This, of course, was not humorous at the time, but if anything is to be gained for any of us in such situations, it's that being humbled from time to time is probably good medicine in life! Chalk it up to STUFF HAPPENS and move on!

In March 1974, the embargo was officially ended. This was negotiated with and by many entities with an agenda, but specifically it was tied to a peace process between the Arabs and Israelis that had enough merit to win the day. Whether or not what individuals at the town level did made any difference in the outcome is difficult to say. Surely it showed a creative and willing populace who will find a way to pare down costs and keep warm within a budget when the going gets tough. This time we are not taking out the wood stoves!

Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.