Oil in France

Marie-Josée grew up in an oil-producing town in France.
Here, she tells how it was.  

Hello, my name is Marie-Josée and I live in Merkwiller-Pechelbronn, a municipality located in the north of the Bas-Rhin which is part of the district of Wissembourg. It is a village of 1000 inhabitants with the annexe of Hoelschloch.

This history of the village is very closely linked with that of petroleum and hydrotherapy, first mentioned in 1498. The Pechelbronn mining industry is the oldest of all the oil companies in the world. Thanks to its oil deposit, the village experienced great prosperity from the 1920s until the end of the Second World War. On August 03, 1944, the village and the refinery were subjected to a terrible bombardment. 1600 bombs were dropped by the Americans in a few minutes. 

The refinery was rebuilt, but the exhaustion of the oil field led SAEM to stop all activities in 1970.

Our family farm was located 50 metres from the refinery and my childhood was filled with intense activity around the site. The images I have of this period are pumps all around the village, each bearing a number, pendulum pumps throughout the surrounding countryside, very tall chimneys, large cisterns.

Next to the house, there was a railway and throughout the day we witnessed the passage of the steam locomotive which pulled wagons with large tanks.

Our day was punctuated by the siren which called the workers to the mines and the workshops. At that time, there was a constant passage of bikes and pedestrians. There were always people on the road, and it was better for us children not to be there, otherwise, we risked ending up under the wheels of a bicycle. And I won’t forget all the tankers that went to and from the refinery all day long.

Another very important presence in the village was the thermal cure which welcomed many people throughout the year. The Helions source was thermal water which gushed from the ground at more than 60°C and was the warmest thermal water in Europe. It was used to mainly treat rheumatism. It was very sulphuric which corroded all the pipes. The thermal activity ceased due to a lack of buyers.

The young generations did not experience all of this. Fortunately, we have the petroleum museum with its volunteers which serves as a memory.


In a tremendous spirit of cooperation, which symbolises my vision of the Brida Project, Marie-Josée was asked several questions by other people. Here are her answers:

Michèle:
Did your father or your mother work in the refinery?
No, neither my father nor my mother was employed at the refinery.

Were there many foreign workers? I am not aware of any foreign workers employed at the refinery. Employees of the refinery came from all over Pechelbronn, from north to south and from east to west.


Were they welcomed in the village? I could not say, after the war, if the population was ready to welcome foreigners, I have my doubts.

Astride:
Are you nostalgic about your childhood?
I am a little nostalgic for this period of my life. Life for me was simple and natural. There was entertainment in the village, and we were popular.

Anny:
Do you like living in Merkwiller or would you have preferred somewhere else?
I loved living in Merkwiller, I never asked myself that question. At that time, we didn’t travel too far so I hadn’t discovered more beautiful places. Once a bigger life in a big city would have pleased me but……

Roger:
Marie-Josée, would you like to relive these beautiful old years?
Yes and no. That time I knew it during my young years, technological progress, we did not know, for us children, this life was simple and easy but think it was less so for our parents who had to work a lot.

Henri:
During Pechelbronn’s heyday, how many employees were employed in the refinery?
At the height of Pechelbronn, there were about 2000 people who were employed in the mines, workshops, offices and refinery.

What was the name of the oil group that operated the refinery? The name of the oil group that operated the refinery was SAEM or Société Alsacienne Etudes Minières.

What is “Karischmiermann”? The Karieschmiermann was a mythical character from the area of Pechelbronn. This character was Louis Hebting (1854-1933) who pushed his wheelbarrow loaded with a barrel filled with bitumen from village to village.

What were the first virtues of bitumen from Pechelbronn? The first properties of bitumen were used for medical purposes. Bitumen was used to treat infections, wounds, toothaches, gout, skin problems and eyes

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