Barnsley's Lion Man hits black gold in Wild West

HE made a fortune dealing scrap metal in a Yorkshire town, but yesterday octogenarian Dennis Higgs revealed he was in line for a new payday after becoming America's latest oil baron.

Mr Higgs, who couldn't be more different from the smooth JR Ewing character made famous by 1980s TV show Dallas, may make millions from the oil well found on land he owns in Wyoming.

He bought the 200-acre ranch near the town of Cheyenne three years ago because he fancied a new challenge after spending his life building up his business in Monk Bretton, Barnsley.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But he claimed yesterday he had no idea his sprawling spread was sitting on an oilfield worth a fortune – and he seemed remarkably calm about his latest wealth.

The pensioner, who spends his time shuttling between the United States and his son's car testing business in Staincross, Barnsley, was told of the discovery by his ranch manager who told him a drilling company had struck oil.

Mr Higgs, who sold his scrapyards for 3.5m, said: "I'm not that bothered really, it's only money to me. There is no telling how much it will be worth in the end but I understand it is going to be in the millions of dollars.

"Before I bought the ranch I went out there and had a walk around the place because I was friendly with someone who had a place near it." He added: "What I noticed was the soil was almost like volcanic dust and then the following day I went back out after it had rained.

"Looking round I noticed all these sort of sparkles in the dust. I knew there was a lot of silver mining out there and I decided to buy the place.

"Sometime later an oil drilling company contacted me and asked if they could go on the land. They wanted to have a dig round and do some prospecting.

"I didn't think anything else about it but then a few weeks ago my ranch manager phoned me to say they had struck oil."

Mr Higgs used to be known in and around Barnsley as the Lion Man because he kept a lion at a pub he owned in an area of Barnsley nicknamed Klondyke – between the communities of Monk Bretton and Cudworth.

"I'm not planning on doing anything wild or crazy and neither is the family. It is just one of those things that happens but I can't deny it's good news," said Mr Higgs.

"At my time in life I can't be bothered to get too excited about it so we are just getting on with the next project which is building a new testing station in Staincross.

"I'll be going back to Cheyenne just to see how things are progressing. I love spending time out there, it is peaceful and beautiful but I'm always happy to come back here. There's no place like Barnsley."

According to figures from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the western state ranked fifth in production of crude oil and second in natural gas production during 2007.

The first crude oil pipeline was constructed in the state in 1911 . Today, 89 companies operate more than 22,700 miles of pipelines carrying crude oil, natural gas or petroleum products.

Three years ago, the state sold 53.4 million barrels of oil and more than 70 rigs worked on wells similar to that discovered on the land owned by Mr Higgs.

Mr Higgs's son Tony, 50, said his father had never been looking to cash in on the industry adding: "My dad's always been a bit of an oddball. He is definitely eccentric and he tends to do things on the spur of the moment.

"He knows someone in Cheyenne, he went over there, liked the look of this ranch and so he bought it. He might be 80 but he is as fit as a fiddle. He probably spends a couple of months at the ranch and the rest of the time he is over here.

"Money has never bothered him although he has always made plenty. He started his scrap business when he was 14 with a horse and cart and it grew from there. He has lived in a static caravan for years and it is only recently that he has built a bungalow."

State's history of boom – and bust

Local historians say oil was first seen in Wyoming in 1832 by French-born explorer and American army captain Benjamin Bonneville.

The significance was not realised until 50 years later when oil was found 300ft underground. Entrepreneurs rushed to stake claims to land all over the state.

The Union Pacific railway brought more people, more business, and more industry.

More significant strikes followed in the 1890s. The first refinery opened in 1895.

More wells appeared in the booming 1920s but many are now exhausted.