The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 8, 2014

‘Complete, total surprise’: Champlin closed Enid refinery 30 years ago

By Dale Denwalt, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Early one morning 30 years ago, the refinery men of Champlin Petroleum Co. huddled into a building on the north side of the complex.

News reports at the time mentioned rumors that had circulated around the plant for days, but maintenance manager Orie Dean Robison remembers differently. For him, the announcement that Friday morning was a “complete, total surprise to everybody.”

“They told us they were going to shut the plant down,” said the 83-year-old Robison, who spent 33 years working for Champlin. “I don’t know how they felt, but I had no inkling that type of sudden shutdown was coming, at all.”

In just a few months, company superiors announced, the refinery and more than 300 jobs would come to an end.

“It was gloom day,” Robison recalled. “Everybody’s heart stuck in their mouth because we had the young and the old, and some in between that didn’t know what they were going to do.”

It turned into a gloomy week, a feeling that continued through Christmas until Jan. 1, when the refinery officially shut down.

Safety manager Tim Sodowsky was one of the lucky ones. He and a few dozen Enid employees were offered downstream jobs at another plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. He decided instead to simply leave the company he hoped to retire with. Sodowsky had a young family, including a baby boy born a little early. Enid was his home, and he enjoyed living here because he was so close to more family back in Ponca City.

“It was pretty dramatic for us. It was hard to move out of that area because we had a lot of good friends there in the Enid area,” Sodowsky said.

The refinery was purchased in 1917 by H.H. Champlin, an banker-turned-oilman who got his start drilling wells in northwestern Oklahoma. His business blossomed with the purchase of smaller oil companies and service stations, until eventually he was marketing petroleum products across six states.

Champlin didn’t stay with the Champlin family, though. It changed hands several times until Union Pacific bought the refinery in 1970. Company officials said at the time that without a costly renovation, the refinery could not remain profitable.

As the plant was shut down, the many retail outlets were sold off. The former refinery, now just a patch of land with oil tanks and some industrial structures, now is owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

Turmoil in the energy market was blamed for Enid losing its refinery, and Champlin was just one of 45 refineries to be shuttered by then, according to an Enid Morning News report at the time.

However, Sodowsky remembers Champlin as one of the few plants doing well.

“The Enid plant was still in the black. It was making some money, so it was a surprise from that perspective,” he said.

The tale of Champlin refinery is not unlike tales of other industrial cornerstones in a small community. The men worked hard, and the fruits of their labor benefitted not only their families, but the city they called home.

Nancy Fuksa’s dad worked in the Champlin water treatment facility for 36 years. She remembers her father, Cecil Richey, taking the family out every Sunday for ice cream.

He would take the car around to 30th Street and drive past the refinery. His kids would shout and holler, pleading with him to roll the windows up to keep out the smell.

“And dad would always leave his window rolled down and stick his head out and say, ‘Mmmm. Smells like bacon and eggs to me,’” Fuksa said. “He’d just smile because yeah, that was our bacon and eggs.”

The shutdown, though, allowed Richey and his wife to retire. They bought a fifth-wheel camper and spent the next two decades enjoying retirement.

Sodowsky still gets a chance to drive by the old refinery when he comes back to visit friends. There’s not much to see anymore.

“That is kind of hard to take because even though I was only there for six years, it was six very good years,” he said. “You see it and it’s like it never really existed.”

After taking his own position at the Corpus Christi plant for two years, Robison retired back to Enid. He still attends an annual reunion, which now only draws 20 or so former Champlin workers.

When he first came back in 1986, most of the facility had been dismantled and sold off.

“I had tears in my eyes the first time I drove by it,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been put to death like that.”