Oil Man Who Gave Away Millions

If you are driving south from Austin 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 pumping stations (pump jacks) operate all over town—even in the heart of the city. Nobody in

Pumpjack

Pumpjack in downtown Luling

Luling minds the odor. They say it is the smell of money. In fact the residents appreciate the oil so much that all nine of the pumping stations are decorated. You’ll see Uncle Sam, a girl eating a watermelon slice (yes, 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.

Edgar B. Davis

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 43,000 barrels of oil a day.

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 forty 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. “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, which opened in 1966, operates on the home site of the man who believed that the more one gives, the more one has.

Edgar B. Davis grave on the grounds of his home and current hospital.

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Imagining a Cathedral

wesley_brethren_church_2013The first Protestant Czech-Moravian congregation in North America built its one-room church of hand-hewn logs in 1866. The tiny community, originally called Veseli meaning “joyous,” had already opened the first Czech school in Texas in 1859, soon after they settled on farmland eight miles south of Brenham. Their pastor was expected to do double-duty as teacher in the little church building.

Reverend Bohuslav Emil Laciak, serving as teacher and pastor in 1888, began painting the interior of the wood building using an art technique called trompe l’ oeil, a method of creating realistic imagery in three dimensions to give the impression of a basilica-style cathedral. He painted rustic-appearing brick walls that rise to the top of the windows. He produced an area above the pulpit that appears to be an apse hosting a gold chalice. The walls are circled by images of columns and arches. The ceiling is colored blue and edged with a geometric chain pattern.

Unfortunately, Reverend Laciak was killed in an 1891 hunting accident before he explained the meaning of his work, although he clearly had not completed his creation because the outlines of more designs are still visible. The congregation believes the bricks, individually highlighted in black, depict the strength of the walls of Jerusalem. The Star of David atop white pillars casting dark shadows remind congregants of the pillars of Solomon’s Temple. The chalice symbolizes the blood of Christ and the continuous chain design around the edge of the ceiling represents the unbroken link of brotherhood. The word “Busnami,” above the pulpit area translates as “God with Us.”wesley_pic3

Czech immigrants, searching for cheap land and more opportunities, began arriving in Texas in the 1850s. Although most of them were Roman Catholics, ten to fifteen percent were Protestant and most of those were United Brethren who came to Texas after generations of persecution in their homeland. They held worship services in homes until they built this little one-room chapel. The building was enlarged and the steeple added in 1883. One hundred years later, the congregation built a new church next door, which serves a community of about sixty. The “log church cathedral,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is open as a museum reminding all Czech-Moravians of their rich heritage.

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master.  Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor.  Denson admired Houston’s devotion to his personal beliefs that prompted him to resign from the governorship rather than support secession.  During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.UHP-IND146

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.  Denson says he was fourteen when Texas seceded and at sixteen he went to war with his master as his “bodyguard.”  Denson’s account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River is gripping in his description of the sound of whippoorwills calling as the men listen for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Interestingly, Denson sees the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly taking care of the women and children left behind on the plantations.  He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

Denson kept records of dates and events and describes in careful detail his original trip from Arkansas to Texas over and around the Great Raft that clogged portions of the Red River above Shreveport, Louisiana.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams–to preach and to teach.  With a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County.  Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, and he taught fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed.  By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county.  His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: RABBI HENRY COHEN

When you travel Texas highways, you see historical markers that tell some of Texas’ best tales.  For several years I wrote some of those marker stories and in the process I discovered a lot of Movers & Shakers that history books never mention.  I plan to share some of the stories in my blogs.

I first heard of Rabbi Henry Cohen when I received a fat folder of information that had to be squeezed into a historical marker story of not more than 24 lines. In that sparse space I tried to capture the life of the extraordinary man whose boundless energy and love of humanity burst from every page.

In 1888 the wiry little man, barely five feet tall, with a booming British accent arrived in Galveston to serve Temple B’nai Israel. He wore black, tuxedo-type suits, starched white bow ties, and white shirts with stiff cuffs on which he wrote his appointments and sermon notes. (I imagine his wife loved getting those cuffs clean.)  Dressed in this formal getup, he rode about Galveston on a bicycle from jail cell to hospital bed to Galveston’s red-light district ministering to and helping every person in need regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof. He was known for saying “there is no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps”.

He may have been small but he showed a giant’s determination when facing injustice.  Hearing of a girl being kept in prostitution against her will, he tore across town on his bicycle, barged into a whorehouse, and found the girl half naked. Wrapping her in a blanket and walking with one arm around her and the other guiding his bike he led her to a clothing store where he told the merchant to “fit her out from head to foot”.  Then, he took her home to his wife and found her a job. His fearlessness quickly created a name for himself in the back streets of Galveston.  When a woman on her deathbed asked to be given a “Christian burial”, Rabbi Cohen received the call to conduct the service.  Not bothering to ask what kept a Protestant minister from showing up, Rabbi Cohen marched to the cemetery where he found a large crowd had gathered from the bordellos.  He led the service using prayers from the New Testament.

Millions of European Jews arrived on the East Coast without the means to survive in the strange new world.  They settled with fellow emigrants in the slums of New York’s lower East side where whole families crowded into tiny rooms, even sleeping in hallways.   Unable to speak English or find work, they huddled in congested, impoverished conditions that led to child labor and crime.  Many in the Jewish community that had come to America and prospered became embarrassed at so much suffering. They devised a plan that allowed immigrant ships to bypass Ellis Island and go instead to Galveston where Rabbi Cohen set up an immigration office and met most every ship.

Since he traveled extensively preaching in cities and towns that did not have a rabbi, he had developed a network of contacts in communities that let him know what occupations they needed.  It might be cobblers, hat makers, tailors, carpenters or clerks. El Paso for example asked to have trunk, harness and saddle makers, whereas Corsicana needed weavers, spinners, and doffers for its new textile industry.  Between 1907 and 1914 Rabbi Cohen and his group placed 10,000 immigrants in jobs and homes west of the Mississippi.

After World War I the Ku Klux Klan began making inroads in towns across the South and Midwest.  When the Klan came to Galveston and tried to get a parade permit, Rabbi Cohen and his friend Father James Kirwin used their considerable influence with the city commissioners to block the parade.  The Klan never got a foothold in Galveston.

Rabbi Cohen worked for prison reform, often having prisoners paroled into his care. He found them jobs, loaned them money, and remained in touch with them after they began new lives.  After he heard of a man raping a twelve-year-old girl and being set free, Rabbi Cohen worked for years to get legislation to raise the age of consent in Texas from ten years old to eighteen.

My favorite story concerns Rabbi Cohen hearing that an immigrant had arrived illegally and faced immediate deportation.  In his usual dramatic fashion, he boarded a train for Washington D.C., and demanded a meeting with President William Howard Taft. And he got it.  Explaining to the president that the man faced a firing squad if he returned to his own country, Rabbi Cohen added that he could find the man a job in Texas.

President Taft listened courteously, and then said he could do nothing for the gentlemen.  The president added, “I certainly admire the way you have gone to so much trouble and expense for a member of your faith.”

“Member of my faith!  This man is a Greek Catholic.  A human life is at stake.”

President Taft picked up the phone and arranged for the man to be released to the custody of the fiery little rabbi.

Rabbi Cohen was fluent in eleven languages; he held the respect of presidents, governors, and cardinals; he wielded influence in state and national legislatures; but the legacy that he would claim with pride was that he made life more bearable for thousands of his fellow human beings.Rabbi Cohen played a major role in providing jobs and homes for immigrants throughout the South and Midwest.  From 1880 to 1920