It’s great fun to tell the story of people who don’t fit the expected mold. In Texas where oilmen are known for strutting about in cowboy boots and living a lavish lifestyle, Tol Barret the pioneer that in 1866 drilled Texas’ first producing oil well was one of those people who didn’t fit the mold. Even his home (to see photos, click a line at the bottom of this site), located five miles south of Nacogdoches in deep East Texas, fails to meet the grand standards of the oilmen that followed Barret—the wildcatters of the 20th Century. If you look at the photos you will see that the house is built inside and out of unpainted vertical rough sawn pine boards. The yard is still swept clean, as was the custom in the mid-1800s, to keep down the risk of fire. The late Captain and Mrs. Phillips moved the house about ten miles from its original site to their Pine Tree Plantation, and converted its detached kitchen and loft into a Bed and Breakfast. Using Barret family photos, the Phillips restored the house and even selected replicas of the Barret’s empire period furnishings for the main house.
Now that you’ve had a look at the only surviving reminder of the unusual man, his story is worth a read. Barret arrived in East Texas with his widowed mother and grew up noticing that oil seeped into water wells; that hogs wallowing on creek beds got slimy with oil; and he probably knew that a water well in a nearby county caught fire in 1848 and burned for a year—all signs to the well-educated young man that contrary to the view of “experts” there was oil under Texas’ pine tree covered hills.
Sure enough, in 1859 oil was discovered in the steep wooded hills of Northwest Pennsylvania—all the proof the experts needed to convince the world that they knew their business—oil would be coming from the eastern part of the US. Undeterred Barret leased a tract of land in December 1859. The Civil War forced him to put his plans on hold.
After serving in the Confederate Army, Barret came home, formed the Melrose Petroleum Oil Co. with four other men, and renewed his lease. Using a steam engine for power, he drilled into the earth with an auger that was eight feet long and eight inches in diameter and suspended from a tripod. He pulled the auger out of the hole with a rope attached to a mule. In that fashion he struck oil at 106 feet. That first Texas oil well produced ten barrels a day.
Barret secured financing through a Pennsylvania firm and brought a Pennsylvania operator to begin a second well. When oil prices plummeted from $6.59 to $1.35 a barrel, and the well didn’t come in at 80 feet as the driller expected, he shut down and headed home.
Broke, and unable to convince Pennsylvania oil operators of the merits of Texas petroleum, Barret gave up. He spent the remainder of his life managing his wife’s farms and a mercantile store.
If your measure of success calls for Tol Barret becoming an oil tycoon, you’ll be disappointed. Barret’s success came with living until 1913, long enough for him to see an oil boom in 1887 at the very site of his original discovery. And the granddaddy of them all, Spindletop, in 1901 produced a “geyser of oil” in Southeast Texas. Tol Barret lived to see the “experts” name Texas the Oil Capital of the World.
P.S. Watch for the Spindletop story next week.