LUSK, Wyo. -- Under a tin shed on the west edge of Lusk sit two hulking cast-iron tanks protected by a bearded drilling rig worker and championed by a Pakistani ex-fighter pilot.
The tanks, used to distill and refine oil, are the cold heart of the old C&H Refinery, a recognized historic landmark and a unique minihistory of oil refining largely unknown outside Lusk.
The tanks were forged in Pennsylvania in 1850, more than a decade before the Civil War's opening shot. Now they and the rest of the refinery belong to Zahir Khalid, a business consultant from Pakistan.
Despite its hidden history and the new state historical marker placed out front, the tiny refinery doesn't look anything like a museum. A driver on nearby U.S. Highway 18 might notice a rundown house, an abandoned service station and a glum zoo of weather-stained metal tanks and small buildings. It's not open to the public.
"I can't emphasize enough, the actual still might be the rarest petroleum industry artifact that exists today, anywhere," said Fred Chapman, formerly an archaeologist with the Wyoming Historic Preservation Office.
The dilapidated refinery exists because of two ambitious men who built it during the Great Depression. Its survival now hinges on two men from Pakistan and Wyoming.
'Going to be a challenge'
The late Saturday morning sun shoots through the metal roof's nail holes, splashing stars of light around the refinery's dank interior.
Carmine Girone, the refinery's caretaker, flips a switch on the wall, triggering a number of light bulbs that wash out the sun's speckles and shadows steam pipes, cans and pieces of wire with the bulk of the two cast-iron tanks.
For Khalid, the refinery's Pakistan-based owner, it's nearly midnight. But in Lusk, it's time to work. During the week, Girone's full-time job is on a rig. On the weekends, he works at the refinery site.
He points to a wheelbarrow, then flexes his biceps.
"This is my truck, and this is my forklift," he says with a smile.
Girone points out this and that as he walks around the site: A Ford Model A truck's running board was cut up to make steps, some tanks are welded while others are held together by rivets, a pile of scrap metal to sell, the future home of picnic tables for tourists.
In the former front office of the refinery's old service station, in what looks like a house, Girone spreads his arms and tells of his hope to turn the space into a small museum.
Around him, the exposed ribs of the walls look sound, but the skin is falling away. The ceiling is patchy or gone.
"This is going to be a challenge," Girone admits.
On the floor sits days-old dog excrement.
A Pakistani's quest
In 1998, Khalid saw a sale notice in a magazine for the small refinery.
He flew across a third of the globe from his home in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad to Lusk, braving a ride to Wyoming that felt like a journey to the edge of desolation.
The refinery wasn't in the operational condition he expected. It was a mess.
"Shocked by the state of the outfit in front of me, I felt the life draining out of my legs," he recalled a year later in a report to the Society for Industrial Archeology newsletter.
But a day later, steady-legged and inspired by the refinery's history, he bought it. Khalid wouldn't tell the Star-Tribune how much he paid, but said the refinery has cost him more than $1 million since.
He set to work repairing the site, hiring sometimes unreliable local help and making approximately 30 trips to Wyoming, sometimes five or six times a year.
"It's been a journey for him," said Chapman, who worked with Khalid to document the site's history and value.
Khalid got the stills working again, obtained an operating permit from state environmental regulators and got the C&H a Guinness World Record listing in 1999 as the world's smallest operating refinery.
Against all odds, the heart of the refinery had warmed once more. But not without cost to Khalid.
"My work and family suffered in Pakistan, because most of the time I was in Wyoming," Khalid said. "But I did not give up until I stabilized it, I cleaned it."
Edwin Chamberlain and James Hoblit, the refinery's namesakes, were ambitious but didn't have much money.
In 1933 they scrounged what they needed for their new refinery business from an old refinery in Casper, according to the refinery's application to the National Register of Historic Places.
What the duo needed to refine the oil was equipment already considered obsolete -- pieces for a process that carefully heated oil to break it into refined substances able to heat homes and fuel cars.
"There's probably nothing like this, certainly in the United States and probably in the world," said Chapman, who used to work in the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. "A lot of the sites where distillation refining was occurring, the sites were cannibalized by subsequent producers."
It remains unclear whether Chamberlain and Hoblit got their hands on the then-80-year-old still by salvage or purchase. Either way, they assembled the other key pieces, including a crucial yet homemade cooling tower needed to create gasoline and fuel oil from oil.
The refinery became the new home for a variety of storage tanks made in the previous decades, including old welded-together tanks from the late 1800s.
The C&H continued operating after Hoblit sold it in 1974. It refined up to about 200 barrels of oil a day. Sales receipts at the site indicate it sold gasoline and fuel oil made on-site to Lusk businesses and motorists who stopped by the service station out front.
The refinery filled a narrowing niche as the refining industry became part of Big Oil, which created a complex solution to processing millions of barrels of oil each day in giant refineries.
In 1978, the C&H shut down for good.
Chapman can't prove it, but the 1850 still at the C&H might be the same one that helped refine oil produced from the world's first oil well, drilled in 1859 by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, Penn.
"We're talking about the first still ever used to process petroleum crude anywhere," he said.
The Drake Well Museum was interested in the still, as was the Smithsonian, Chapman said. Yet still remains under a tin roof in Lusk.
The refinery itself is a mashed mess of equipment with origins spanning decades of oil refining. Tanks from the late 1800s and early 1900s litter the ground.
"What's unique about the site, historically, is you can see the entire history of the petroleum industry at that site," Chapman said.
Two more modern and rusted refining towers stretch across open parts of the grass Girone trims with a walking mower. He hopes to cut up the towers and sell them for scrap.
Girone has hunted for dates on the equipment as he's worked on the refinery site, but he's found very little information.
Buffeted by a west wind, he waves in the general direction of what he thinks are tanks that in the past rolled on railroad wheels, but now sit side by side like graves.
"I can't find dates on them," he said. "I can't find dates on any of this stuff. It's just frustrating."
After years and millions of dollars spent, Khalid seems hopeful, yet hopeless. He turns bitter when he talks about Wyoming's disinterest in the refinery. Unlike him, the state doesn't seem to care about its history, he says.
He's gotten several national magazines to write about the refinery, scored it a Guinness World Record and a place on the National Register of Historic Places. But Wyoming's attention is something he feels he can't get.
Khalid wrote a passionate letter to Gov. Matt Mead in June 2011.
"I may like to tell you that in the present circumstances the heritage will die the day I die," Khalid wrote. "I am very clear in my mind that this unique heritage cannot be saved and opened to public without state's help and cooperation. I am exhausted in every respect."
About a month later, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office and Lusk officials erected an historical marker telling the refinery's story.
Mary Hopkins, the state's historic preservation officer, said Khalid has been informed about how to apply for the state to acquire the refinery as an historical site.
With Mead calling for state agencies to tighten their budgets because of rock-bottom natural gas prices, it could prove difficult to convince the Wyoming Legislature to spend money on the site, she said.
"Right now with the current economic climate in Wyoming, to take on more responsibility is a tough one for the state," she said. "It's not that we don't think the property is important or it has a place in Wyoming history. It's a matter of if it's feasible, and I don't know that right now."
Khalid thinks the operators and refiners now active in Wyoming should appreciate the Lusk refinery as a treasured look at their roots. If they would take over its renovation, he said, they would get a remarkable asset.
"They owe this thing to the state," he said. "They have made billions of dollars, and they could slip in some peanuts to save this heritage."
But the oil and natural gas business, an industry always on the move, is not often kind to its past.
Similar refineries, which used a simple but antiqued distillation refining method, have been torn down or have simply disappeared into history without a trace.
Even Wyoming, whose short history spans the life of the petroleum industry, doesn't have a single museum dedicated to the state's oil and gas development, Chapman said.
"History here occurred late in time," he said. "So I think that people aren't necessarily tuned into something that may have occurred 100 years ago as much as something that occurred 400, 500 years ago."
Yet the C&H refinery could still operate today and has a current state permit to prove it, Khalid said.
He'd gladly give it up if a big refiner or state association of the oil and gas industry would take it over, he noted.
Chapman thinks that's the way to go.
"Both the state and industry need to get behind this," he said. "There's nothing else like this anywhere else. Nothing like it."
Back at the refinery site in Lusk, Girone says he's made a commitment to Khalid and the refinery he won't retract.
So Girone keeps working. There's scrap metal to sell; metal that could pay for more work at the site.
"He's an angel," Khalid says of Girone.
A Pakistani's dream rides in the rig worker's wheelbarrow, thousands of miles away.
"I'm afraid if I give it up, he'll give it up, and it'll go to hell," Giron says, a piercing look of certainty in his eyes. "I just told Zahir I'm going to get it done, and I will."