If you are driving south from Austin, Texas, on US 183, you know when you’ve arrived in Luling. Even if you’re the passenger and your eyes are closed, you’ll recognize Luling. It stinks. Yes, oil pump jacks operate all over town—even in the downtown part of town. Nobody in Luling minds the smell. In fact the residents appreciate the oil so much that many of the 200+ pump jacks are decorated. You’ll see Uncle Sam, a girl eating a watermelon slice (it’s also watermelon country), a grasshopper, Tony the Tiger—you get the idea.
The story of Luling’s oil business dates back to 1919 when the little town of 1,500 with a railroad running parallel to its dusty main street and wooden sidewalks was struggling to recover from the effects of WWI. Edgar B. Davis, a loud-talking, over-sized bachelor from Massachusetts with a strong Yankee accent showed up. The residents welcomed the jovial fellow who had already made a million in the shoe business and over $3 million in the rubber business. He had come to Luling because his brother Oscar asked him to look into a $75,000 investment he had made in oil leases that weren’t producing.
Against the advice of everyone, including geologists, Davis bought his brother’s interest, ordered the drilling to go from 1,700 to 3,000 feet, and promptly drilled six dry wells in a row. Almost broke and deeply in debt, Davis drove out to the seventh well site on August 9, 1922. Suddenly, black gold shot straight up in the air announcing the arrival of Rafael Rios No. 1. Within two years the field produced 11 million barrels of oil a year. In 1926 Davis sold his leases to Magnolia Petroleum Company for $12 million (half in cash), an oil deal considered the largest in Texas up to that time.
If that were the end of the story, it would just be another ho-hum tale of a rich man almost going broke and rebounding into even more wealth. This is no ordinary story. Although Edgar B. Davis did not belong to a church, he held a strong belief that Providence guided his life. He planned a “thank offering” for his friends, associates, and employees. He bought 40 wooded acres on the north side of town and built an athletic clubhouse for blacks. South of town, on the banks of the San Marcos River, he bought 100 acres and laid out a golf course and clubhouse facilities for whites. He fully endowed both sites. Then, he hosted a barbecue, strung Japanese lanterns, built polished, outdoor dance floors, imported bands, and brought in singers from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Estimates of attendance ranged up to 35,000. The food reportedly cost $10,000 and included all the accouterments, even Havana cigars.
Next, the man who believed that he was an instrument of God gave bonuses to his employees of 25 to 100 percent of their total salary—an estimated $5 million. But, he wasn’t done. With the firm belief that he had been “directed” to deliver Luling and the surrounding counties from the oppressive one-crop cotton economy, Davis purchased 1,200 acres west of town and established the Luling Foundation. This experimental farm continues to conduct research in all facets of farming including experimental and management programs in cooperation with Texas A & M University.
When I visited Luling to research this story, I heard several strange tales about Edgar B. Davis. Perhaps the strangest came from an older gentlemen who reported that Davis continued to wildcat and eventually found himself in such financial straits that the bank was about to foreclose on his home. In a series of mysterious late-night raids, his house was burned to the ground. When I questioned why anyone in the whole region had reason to burn Davis’ home, the old gentlemen said. “Well, I guess folks figured if Edgar B. Davis couldn’t keep his home, nobody else was going to get it.”
Before Davis died in 1951 at age 78, he rebuilt his fortune. He was buried on the grounds of his destroyed home. Today the Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital, an acute care facility that opened in 1966, operates on the home site of the man who believed that the more one gives, the more one has.