Boomtown II/Oil in the Family

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Wichita County, Texas

The Northwest Texas frontier is mostly about distance. Trees become little oasis of shade on the horizon and water is often hard to find. This situation was confronted by the Spanish conquistadors. Their maps describe it as an arid desert and they ignored it for several hundred years after staking their claim. By then it belonged to the horse backed Comanches and they were a significant additional danger factored into expeditions like the Mier, Snively and the Sibley as well as the Texas cattle drives. Their submission was in large part brought about by army quartermaster Lawton's logistical abilities. Foraged food and ammunition were transported many hundreds of miles to Mackenzie's Fourth Cavalry, heralding the end of the Plains' warring nations.

Boom Town Movie Poster

During the late 1870s, the big ranches were the first beneficiaries of the peace dividend. Joined by Quanah with his Comanche reservation, the tribe not only made money raising cattle but charged other cattlemen grass leasing and right-of-way fees.

At this same time, our family entered Texas through Jefferson and settled a beautiful piece of Blackland Prairie. We were quite content until some of Caruth's cowboys, guns drawn, urged us "squatters" to move on. We continued west to the northern edge of Jack county and joined our cousins in establishing Post Oak.

The Stars Fell On Henrietta Movie Poster

My grandfather was the first president of an American law class (Cumberland, Tennessee) to be born west of the Mississippi. He was appointed Groom's district attorney while still a teenager. It was in that capacity he met and fell in love with my grandmother while serving a writ in Post, Texas. They married and started their family. He went to work for an oil company that moved him to Wichita Falls to lease property. They spent the Roaring Twenties in the North Texas boomtowns, finally moving the brood to Dallas. The kids graduated from Woodrow Wilson and the boys continued on through Texas A&M.

Picture from the book, Early Texas Oil, by Walter Rundell, Jr.

Leasing oil properties is where the "rubber meets the road" in wildcatting. Wise old ranchers appreciated that their royalty money would be doled out monthly to their heirs, reducing the chances of a squandered inheritance. Over and over again, the big boys would open the valves, drive down the price and then pick up little properties for a song. Volatility in the price of oil was just one of the factors that made tight-fisted bankers reluctant to loan much on royalties. Handing out money to flambouyant gamblers (wildcatter's success rate was one in eleven) just wasn't prudent.

Picture from the book, Early Texas Oil, by Walter Rundell, Jr.

By the late fifties, the big valve was in Saudi Arabia, and America's willingness to import the cheap stuff permanently depressed domestic production. My dad assumed the presidency of Texas Producers and Royalty Owners Association in the early sixties. He lobbied Congress on their behalf warning of the dangers to National Security of becoming dependent on foreign oil.

His nemesis' were Moe and Stuart Udall and their ilk at the powerful Interior Department (think Indian Ring); government regulators, eager to manage public and private land under the guise of natural resource protection. They cried, "Let's burn the Arabs cheap oil and leave ours in the ground for future generations," never considering the lag time necessary to bring an anemic energy industry back to capacity. Dad successfully put all of his efforts into getting John Tower L.B.J.'s abandoned Senate seat. His return appearances in front of Congress were more fruitful with an ally in the body.

Picture of John Tower and Netum Steed
Netum Steed (right) arriving in Washington D.C. with newly elected Senator John Tower

Thanks to the Six Day War and an unintentional crimp in America's foreign oil supply, a full-scale embargo was implemented in the seventies, resulting in $40 a barrel oil and three hour waits at our filling stations. Carter responded to the crisis with a Windfall Profits Tax, assuring a lingering flu, if not double pneumonia, for the industry. Just the same, the price spike sparked exploration including our development of the Burnett Ranch.

Here, the element of distance mentioned earlier really comes into play. Countless hours of road time were spent hauling men and equipment to the field. Just out of high school, my roughneck crew left Wichita Falls around noon to make evening tower near Chillicothe and we never got back before the bars closed.

Working the 6666's required at least another hour or so driving each way. It was Dad's greatest gamble and was worth it. After decades of two and three dollar oil and a heart attack, the seventies boom was welcome medicine. His lease covered nearly two hundred thousand acres but it cost a queen's ransom in up front bonus money, had an unprecedented royalty, requisite annual wildcat footage and checkerboarded acreage. Three dry holes tested the nerves before the first producer was brought in. He continued to drive his worn out Buick with its cracked up windshield for nearly another year. He called it his company car, finance company that is, and said he drove it for good luck but I think he liked sending GMAC a monthly check to remind him of recent hard times. The wells were unromantically named with initials, AA, AB, AC. Proof of his good fortune was an eventual necessity to add a third letter.

Thirty years later and a drive through North Texas will pass many drilling rigs, thanks to recent record high prices due to the current problems in the Middle East. A lot of the rigs in this section of the state are drilling into the Barnett Shale, a gas bearing formation long familiar to the industry. $5+ natural gas prices and Halliburton's development of more efficient recovery methods has brought us this modern day boom. There may be enough oil and natural gas in North America to eliminate our need for imported oil within a decade if the prices hold. My father recommended in his time what still makes sense today; a tax on imported oil to support our domestic development. Hardly the thing a president linked with "rich Texas oilmen" could propose without risking the loss of his political opponents to spontaneous combustion. Still, it's a good idea.

Long drives across northwest Texas' tornado alley was part of the price of bringing in the Burnett's 6666's oil fields. The ranch gave Fort Worth Richard Serra's, Into the Vortex (below).

Richard Serra's Into the Vortex

June 30, 1964 Twister

They also gave Jonathan Borofsky's, A Man with a Briefcase, (below) which, at least in my mind, will always depict a wildcatter.

Jonathan Borofsky's Man with a Briefcase

Picture of Going to See Santa

That's me and my folks in the picture above taken about 1950 at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show.

Giant Movie Poster

Edna Furber solidified her fame demonizing the oil business with her book and subsequent movie production, Giant, making it too easy for "public minded" regulators and legislators to punish the industry.

Wheeler Dealer

Flamboyant misbehavior of "rich Texas oilmen" was at least bipartisan and, in fact, many were natural gas producers. A commodity federally regulated since FDR and controlled by state legislatures (Texas and all its neighbors) of which none had a Republican member since the Civil War. A pre-Enron, South Texas gas mogul democrat famous for saying, "the two biggest wastes of time in an oilman's life is playing golf and sleeping with his own wife, and was probably the model for Dallas' J.R. Ewing. Several of his predecessors were the logical models for Furber's Giant (Jett Rink's hotel looked like Dallas' Statler Hilton but most Texas insiders figured that Houston's Shamrock was on the author's mind.)

Texasville Movie Poster

It hardly seems fair that "Big Oil" is now always considered the villain but fair is where the pigs get weighed and it's better in today's movies that businessmen are the villains, if at least, our soldiers and policemen are heroes.

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