Father Baker's Folly

Current Implementation (for use with GPS equipped mobile devices with a data plan): Father Baker's Folly Mobile App


Father Baker’s Folly is a mobile nonfiction project centered on the historical/mythological event of Nelson Baker’s discovery of natural gas in Limestone Hill (now Lackawanna), NY. The final piece will take shape as a web application intended for handheld mobile devices equipped with a data plan, GPS, and a compass. Using geolocation and device orientation, the app will respond to movement such that the user will be guided towards the central location of the project, Gaslight Park, which was recently constructed to commemorate Baker’s discovery while simultaneously acting as both a corporate expansion of church industries and a community development program. This project will be a method for bringing history, mythology, and the present together through the process of divining, or dowsing, for natural gas with a cell phone.

Theoretical Frame:

“As a locative technology that is often just a branch cut from a tree, the divining rod has a deep and tortuous history tied to elemental, mythical, and spiritual forms of spatial orientation. Positioning this technology as an antecedent to contemporary forms of locative media calls attention to a range of neglected and alternative imaginations that are tied to these network devices.” (Alex Ingersoll, Divining the Network with the Forked Twig)

This project attempts to extend the notion of divination and, in this case, dowsing, into what we have been calling “new media.” Fundamentally, this project is one of mapping in the sense that the divining rod “maps” by identifying landscape markers that literally go deeper than, say, the audio/visual sphere on the planet’s surface. These markers are built into the structure of the earth itself, manifesting themselves as “energy”, and are interpreted by humans as places. One such place is Father Baker’s “city of charity” in Lackawanna, NY. The “energy” that marks this place is natural gas, though such an obviously “useful” natural resource is helpful for making an explicit point, I would extend the concept of a resource to include more abstract energies, such as ley lines. Religious structures, after all, have been founded on the confluence of such lines of power for centuries. In this way, religion is literally built on energy, and that energy is spiritual. It becomes the way the earth speaks to us and places us on its body. These energies are essential to the distribution of human beings across the planet, and as such, I am attempting to demonstrate an essential character of how humans use tools, such as the forked twig or the drill or radio imaging or cell phones, to interface and interact with the earth itself, and how the product of that interaction remains with us as an altered landscape, a landscape that is at once spiritual and economic.

The questions I would hope to ask through the making and eventual experience of this application are: what do we choose to do with a natural resource once we have divined its presence, and how are technologies for finding a resource predicated upon its usefulness? If we understand the processual component of finding and extracting energy from the planet as radically spiritual (of our very breath itself, our capacity for life), how does that change our relationship to said extraction? Finally, how do we understand the earth-as-provider? Are its provisions guaranteed to us as human rights or as God-given rights? Are these provisions guaranteed at all?

Historical Frame:

Nelson Baker (b. 1842 in Buffalo, NY), after serving in the civil war and subsequently running a successful feed and grain business, entered into the priesthood of the Catholic Church in 1876. Due to visiting a Marian shrine in France, Baker had become devoted to Our Lady of Victory, and prayed to her often. After being assigned as superintendent of the Limestone Hill parish in 1882, Baker began to work on what is now called the “city of charity”. The parish was in financial trouble, and after using his own savings to partially pay off the debt, Baker needed a way for the church to sustain itself. The discovery of natural gas in the greater region, including Western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, led Baker to believe that it was possible that gas could be found in the West Seneca region, even on church property. As drilling was expensive, Baker reportedly asked Our Lady of Victory (OLV) to send him a sign. Soon after, an anonymous donation was made to the Diocese of Buffalo of $5,000. Taking this as OLV’s sign, Baker convinced Bishop Steven V. Ryan to let him use part of the fund to drill his well.

The legend goes that Father Baker met the drilling team at the head of a procession of altar boys and members of the church, chanting an original hymn that he wrote to OLV, whilst carrying a small lead statue of her. Walking the path he used daily, Baker chose a spot, buried the statue, and instructed the drilling team to start taking core samples next to her. After weeks of finding nothing, and drilling deeper than was commonly done (600 ft. would have been as far as the team would usually drill before moving on), Baker was criticized openly in Limestone Hill for wasting church funds. A local paper called it “Father Baker’s Folly”. After spending the rest of the $5,000 fund, the team finally struck gas at 1,137 feet below the surface, and the well continues to produce to this day, powering most of the current “city of charity” that was built up around it.