The incredible history of fossil-fuel beauty pageants
Spend a little time in Morgan City, La., and you’re bound to run into someone connected to oil. Scratch that. “You’d have trouble finding someone who isn’t,” says Darby Isham, whose own ties are personal and professional.
Isham, 23, moved to Morgan City with her family two decades ago. After graduating from Louisiana State University in 2014, she came home to the city where her father, brother, and fiancé all work for the oil industry and accepted a high-profile job of her own: executive director of the annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
For five days each summer, more than 100,000 visitors descend on Morgan City (pop. 12,000-ish), which perches on the murky Atchafalaya River about 90 miles west of New Orleans. They come for the music, the midway, and the blessing of the ships. They also come for a glimpse of royalty. For almost as long as there’s been a festival dedicated to celebrating the industries that put Morgan City on the map (the Shrimp Festival started in 1936, with Petroleum added to the marquee in 1967) there’s been a young woman wearing a sash that bears its name. Each year, a Shrimp and Petroleum Queen is crowned the weekend prior to the festival in an event that is, says Isham, “more coronation than pageant.” The winner earns a $1,000 scholarship and spends a year representing the festival around the state.
Although the pairing of oil and tiaras might seem incongruous, Morgan City isn’t the only place that celebrates youth, beauty, and fossil fuels. Across the United States, from Appalachia to the Badlands, communities that owe their existence to the coal, oil, and gas industries honor that legacy through pageantry.
In the map below, click on a tiara for more information:
Pageants themselves are a longstanding American tradition, with roots dating to a P. T. Barnum scheme in the 1850s. But the idea of aligning them with the energy industry appears to have sprung up in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. The town of Taft, Calif., named an Oil Queen in 1935, and Hazard, Ky., crowned a Queen of the Coal Fields in 1937. The 1950s saw the first annual Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal Pageant, as well as a series of Miss Atomic Bomb contests in Las Vegas — because nothing says love of country like a “cotton mushroom-cloud swimsuit.”
From there, the tradition plumed. Although it feels like a distinctly American idea, other countries have tried it on for size. England had a national coal-queen contest from the 1960s until 1996, and Nigeria has a Coal City pageant “to empower young ladies with regards to the ancient coal mining in this state and beyond.”
Across the U.S., young women now compete for titles like Miss Oil Patch, Miss Coal Queen, and Princess Flame. Rebecca Lebak entered the Miss Oil Country pageant in tiny Tioga, N.D. (pop. 1,200 and shrinking) in 2012, at the height of the fracking boom. She won the pageant and progressed to the statewide Miss North Dakota contest, held in nearby Williston — epicenter of the boom.
At the state pageant, “The judges wanted to know my thoughts on fracking and all the oil development happening in North Dakota,” Lebak says. “My experience in Tioga”– including a tour of oil-field operations–“really gave me an edge.”
Lebak, now 24 and working as a TV weather reporter in Knoxville, Tenn., finished second in the state pageant. She earned the award for Miss Congeniality and, she adds, more than a few hoots and hollers in the male-dominated boomtown’s local Walmart.
In communities that have endured more than their share of hardships — places where oil has spilled, where low oil prices mean layoffs, where coal mines and economies have collapsed — these events represent far more than a parade of pretty faces. “Pageants let families give their daughters an opportunity to shine,” Lebak says. “In a city that’s covered in dirt and oil, it’s the one time they can have diamonds and dresses.”
For the winners, honors range from riding in the town parade to addressing the state legislature, from netting a scholarship to getting an up-close look at mines and derricks. A recent titleholder from Pennsylvania described the experience of descending into a coal mine: “We were underground for six hours but the time flew by. Before we went, I pictured pick axes and dynamite, but the machines in the mine were more technologically advanced than I could even imagine … It was like Star Wars underground.”
“In a city that’s covered in dirt and oil, it’s the one time they can have diamonds and dresses.”
The image of a princess in a coal mine has caught the public imagination. Coal pageants have inspired a Hollywood-funded documentary called The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania; a short film, Born Into Coal, that follows a contestant and her family; and a profile in Think Progress, among other coverage. But oil pageants seem to have remained underground. We consulted local history sites, newspapers, and pageant insiders to compile a brief look at these events and the communities that hold them dear.
- Miss Oil Queen, Titusville, Pa.
Town nickname: “The birthplace of the oil industry”
Boom times: The country’s first oil rush started right here in 1859; the town quickly grew from 250 people to more than 10,000. President Ulysses Grant visited, the industry’s first million was made, and a man named Franklin Tarbell moved to town. His daughter Ida became famous for her muckraking look at the slick dealings of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Tiara tales: The pageant’s mission is “to let girls be a princess for a year,” and like many such events, it offers categories for infants through the early twenties. The contest starts with the audience donating a quarter or more to vote for winners in the youngest category, Oil Queen Baby Princess, with proceeds supporting juvenile diabetes research and other causes.
- Miss West Virginia Oil and Gas, Sistersville, W.Va.
Town nickname (1800s): “The oil and gas capital of the world”
Boom times: In 1891, the discovery of oil here “boomed Sistersville from a rural village of 300 people to a rip-roaring, snorting metropolis of 15,000 people almost overnight. Imagine, if you will, the entire countryside covered with oil derricks, 2,500 of them by one count … houses were torn down to make room for these [derricks] … the orchard was full of people living under the trees with the barest of coverings against the elements.”
Tiara tales: Sistersville selects both an Oil and Gas Queen and an Oil and Gas Man of the Year. This year’s Queen went on to win the statewide title at the Miss West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals contest, besting 80 other contenders in a victory that, according to the local pageant co-chair, “really put Sistersville on the map.”
- Oil Queen, Citronelle, Ala.
Town nickname: “The best kept secret in southern Alabama”
Boom times: In the mid-20th century, the ever-entrepreneurial oil industry discovered “one of the most puzzling oil fields in the nation” in a vast underground salt dome. The Citronelle Dome continues to fascinate scientists and the government, who have used it to demonstrate the potential of carbon sequestration.
Tiara tales: Based at Citronelle High School, the pageant includes nods for, among the usual congeniality and beauty awards, highest GPA. The first Oil Queen was named in 1960 and wore, according to a 2005 article by her grown daughter, “a crown shaped like a little oil derrick perched gaily on her head.”
- Shrimp and Petroleum Queen, Morgan City, La.
Town nickname: “Pride of the Atchafalaya”
Boom times: A sugar-cane plantation turned fur-trading port, Morgan City was wild enough to be selected as the location for the filming of the first Tarzan movie in 1917. Thirty years later, it found a new claim to fame: Site of (well, nearest community to) the first successful offshore oil well. “Mr. Charlie,” the first offshore rig, now serves as a museum in town.
Tiara tales: Louisiana does not mess around when it comes to pageants, y’all. You have your Gumbo Queen, your Etouffee Queen, your Cattle Queen, your Pecan Queen, your Jambalaya Queen, your Hurricane Queen, and your Cajun Hot Sauce Queen. Suddenly Shrimp and Petroleum, the oldest state-chartered harvest festival, seems downright normal.
- Van Oil Queen, Van, Texas
Town nickname (1800s): “Who’d-a-Thought-It”
Boom times: Van “launched into an oil boomtown overnight” in 1929, with oil companies including Sun, Humble, and Pure jumping into the game. Today Chevron looms large, but historians say the horizon has changed: “Although pump jacks are still seen behind downtown businesses, in back yards, church yards and among the hay fields and cattle, the sea of oil derricks no longer grace the skyline.”
Tiara tales: This pageant, which kicks off with a mandatory Oil Pageant Tea, includes Little Roughneck and Mighty Roughneck categories for boys. The victorious Van Oil Queen dons a fur-lined, red-velvet robe whose train is embroidered with the name of the town’s first oil well, and all winners participate in the Van Oil Festival, celebrating its 87th year in 2016.
- Miss Oil Capital, Tulsa, Okla.
City nickname: “Oil capital of the world”
Boom times: Like a reigning pageant queen, Tulsa assumed the “oil capital of the world” title in the early 1900s as exploration moved west from places like Titusville, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. During WWI, the city “was headquarters to 1,500 oil-related companies, and was the decision center for the mid-continent oil fields, which produced two-thirds of the nation’s oil.” As interest in offshore drilling grew, Tulsa passed the crown to Houston, but the nickname remains.
Pageant: Miss Oil Capital is part of a “Triple Crown” of preliminary pageants that feed into the Miss America system. Just as most of the small-town pageants do, Miss Oil Capital includes categories for multiple ages; last year’s adult and teen winners offered renditions of “Dirt Road Prayer” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
- Miss Oil Patch, Drumright, Okla.
Town nickname: “Town of oil repute”
Boom times: His name was Tom Slick, and when he struck oil on a farm in 1912, Drumright “sprang up nearly overnight,” housing its first residents in boxcars. Oil remains one of the community’s main industries, but times are changing: a former school for the children of oil workers was recently converted into a winery.
Tiara tales: Held at the Boomtown Theater, the Miss Oil Patch pageant leads up to the annual Oil Patch Jamboree. (Not to be confused with the annual Oil Patch Festival, a July 4th concert and critical darling hailed by Billboard that draws thousands of people to town.) The Jamboree includes music, a BBQ cookoff, a “world-famous” parade, and Dress Like an Oilfield Worker Day.
- Miss Oil Country, Tioga, N.D.
Town motto: “Where the riches of the earth are made useful through the ingenuity of people”
Boom times: The tiny town of Tioga sits on just 1.31 square miles of land, but it has hit the big time twice: first in the 1950s with the discovery of oil, and again when fracking made this area hot. Recent rough spots include a pipeline spill that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of oil on a Tioga farm and a slowdown in the fracking boom has left local communities wondering what’s next.
Tiara tales: Like Tulsa’s Miss Oil Capital, Miss Oil Country feeds into the state pageant; former Miss Oil Country Rebecca Lebak lined up oil-company Hess to help cover the costs of her dress and transportation for that event. Once in Williston, she and her mother took a self-guided tour of the man camps, the nickname for temporary housing for fracking workers (“I thought it would be a good story for my campus newspaper,” she says). Other pageant families have found the locale more worrisome.
- Oildorado Queen, Taft, Calif.
Town motto: “Energized for the future”
Boom times: Taft is because oil is — and no one in this desert community (originally christened Moron, before the word picked up its current connotation) is shy about that fact. Oil has been “the economic lifeblood [of Taft] for over 100 years,” with Exxon, Shell, and Texaco active in the area’s massive oil fields. This was the site of U.S. history’s biggest oil spill, a gusher that lasted 18 months and spewed 9.4 million barrels of oil. By comparison, B.P’s Gulf oil spill in 2010 totaled 4.9 million barrels; the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, 257,000 barrels.
Tiara tales: Taft whoops it up every five years for Oildorado Days, a 10-day welling-up of town pride that includes facial-hair and arm-wrestling contests, pipefitting and heavy-equipment competitions, music, a roaming posse, and more. Several months before the festival, the town selects a dozen or so local contenders for the title of Oildorado Queen. These young women, who make appearances at school and community events, are known as the Maids of Petroleum.
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