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The quest to find oil underneath Florida brought a lot of dead ends and “dry holes”—until the prospectors came across Collier County.

According to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, the first wells in the state were dug near Pensacola in 1900 but turned up nothing, what are referred to as “dry holes” in the industry. Demand for U.S. oil grew during World War I, and while other states such as Texas had several gushers, the Sunshine State still lagged well behind. In the 1920s, Barron Collier had amassed more than 1 million acres of land in Southwest Florida and started contracting with drillers to explore for oil. Gulf Oil Company dug for 10 years to strike oil but left the state with more dry holes.

Despite decades of bad luck, the search continued. The state Legislature even offered $50,000 to whoever could first discover oil in the state. Collier passed away in 1939, but he still believed oil could be found in Florida. “I can smell it,” he reportedly once told his son.

Humble Oil and Refining Co. had been searching in the Sunniland area just south of Immokalee near what’s now known as Big Cypress National Preserve. On Sept. 26, 1943, they found it. It was Florida’s first producing oil well, and, yes, Humble claimed the $50,000 prize—then donated it to University of Florida and the Florida State College for Women.

Other wells eventually were discovered in the state, but Florida never became a top producer. Currently, the state produces about one-tenth of the country’s oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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