The Prophet of Spindletop

Pattillo Higgins
Wikipedia

Pattillo Higgins is one of those people who put Texas on the world oil map, and he rarely gets a mention. He had a bad reputation as a jokester and troublemaker as he grew up in Beaumont. Blacks often became his target. He was seventeen in 1880 when sheriff’s deputies tried to stop him from harassing blacks. When the fight ended, Higgins had killed a deputy and received a shot in his arm, which led to amputation. At his trial, he pled self-defense and won the case.

Five years later, Higgins became a born-again Baptist at a revival and gave up swearing, drinking, gambling, and smoking. He stopped working with the rough element in lumber camps and began to teach a little girls’ Sunday school class.

He opened his own brick-making business, which led to him investigating the use of gas to power his plant. Despite only four years of schooling, Higgins began an independent study of geologic formations around the country and became convinced that oil lay under Big Hill, a salt dome south of Beaumont that emitted a gas that smelled like Sulphur. He often took his Sunday school class on picnics to the hill and showed them how to punch cane poles into the hill and light the gas that escaped.

Although geologic experts did not believe that oil would be found along the Gulf Coast area, Higgins convinced George Carroll, a fellow Baptist, and two other men to join him in the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company. Higgins served as manager and selected the name “Gladys” in honor of a seven-year-old girl in his Sunday school class. He also planned a model town at the site of the future oil field, which he named Gladys City.

After drilling several dry holes, the experts and citizens of Beaumont decided that the Higgins was a fool and his plan was a failure. Undeterred, he ran an ad in journals throughout the country seeking a geologist. Anthony Lucas, a mining

Anthony Lucas
Wikipedia

engineer and an expert on salt-dome formations, was the only one to answer Higgins’ ad.

When the money ran out, Lucas went to Pennsylvania to secure financing from Andrew Mellon, son of T. Mellon the Pittsburg banking giant. The deal cut Higgins out of the business.

On January 10, 1901, a “geyser of oil” blew in on “Big Hill.” The discovery was called the “Lucas 1.” It spewed 800,000 barrels over one hundred feet above the well for nine days, before it could be capped. Spindletop was born and ushered in the petroleum age. Patillo Higgins finally gained respect from the community, but Anthony Lucas became the hero.

Lucas Gusher
Wikipedia

Patillo Higgins did not suffer in the deal. Six more gushers blew in before Higgins own well came in on April 18. The derrick floors, which measured seventeen feet across, were so close together that a man could walk a mile without stepping on solid ground.

It is said that Higgins sued Carroll and his partners for $4 million, and settled out of court “satisfied.” He continued as a wildcatter, making and losing fortunes until his death at 92. Some say he ended up one of the wealthiest men in Texas.

Throughout the years, he continued to support orphan girls, finally adopting fifteen-year-old Annie Jones in 1905 and marrying her three years later when he was forty-five. They had three children.

As for Gladys City, it developed as a boomtown of frame shanties, not the model city of Higgins’ dreams. Today, Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown, operated by Lamar University, offers a self-guided tour of the grounds and fifteen re-constructed buildings filled with objects from the oil boom era. On January 14 each year, visitors are invited to the Lucas Gusher Celebration. You may have noticed that Higgins’ name isn’t included in the event.

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The First Oil Well in Texas

Everyone knows about Spindletop, the 1901 oil discovery that changed the world and thrust Texas into the big-time petroleum business. A few people know that in 1895 the city fathers of Corsicana hired an experienced Kansas drilling outfit to increase the town’s much-needed

Tol Barret,
Courtesy East Texas Research Center

water supply. To the chagrin of the politicians, they discovered oil instead and quickly abandoned the well. The story of Tol Barret, who brought in Texas’ first oil well in 1866, slipped under the radar.

Tol Barret House

Texas oilmen are known for strutting about in cowboy boots and living a lavish lifestyle, but Tol Barret doesn’t fit that mold. Even his home located five miles south of Nacogdoches on a pine tree plantation fails to meet the grand standards of the Texas wildcatters.

Barret arrived as a child in deep East Texas and grew up aware 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 self-educated young man that contrary to the opinion of “experts,” oil lay in those pine tree covered hills.

Geologists expected to find oil only on the east coast, and they were proven correct in 1859 when Northwest Pennsylvania produced the first well in the United States. Undeterred Barret leased a tract of land that same year, but lack of equipment and the Civil War interrupted his plan.

Barret Parlor

After serving in the Confederate Army, Barret came home, formed the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company with four other men, and renewed his lease. Mounting an auger that was eight feet long and eight inches in diameter on a tripod, he used a steam engine for drilling and a mule to pull the auger out of the hole. In that primitive fashion, he bored to 106 feet, where, in early fall of 1866 he struck oil. The first Texas oil well produced ten barrels a day.

Auger fastened to a pipe and rotated by a steam-driven cogwheel — the basic principle of rotary drilling.
Am. Oil & Gas Hist. Soc.

Barret rushed to Pennsylvania to secure financing and hired an experienced operator to begin the second well. Barret’s luck began to run out. Oil prices plummeted from $6.59 to $1.35 a barrel, the well didn’t come in as expected at eighty feet, and the driller shut down and headed home.

Meantime, Barret’s home burned and his in-laws gave him a house where he and his wife raised eleven children. 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 in Melrose.

He lived until 1913, long enough to see that he had been correct. An oil boom hit the field in 1887 where Barret had drilled, and the granddaddy of them all, Spindletop, gushed in 1901. Texas, indeed, became the oil capital of the world.

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.

From “Booger Town” to “All-American City”

A friend told me that in the 1920s her father’s job of hauling construction materials in the Texas Panhandle required that he drive through Borger.

Thomas Hart Benton's painting, "Boom Town," depicts Borger's Main Street.

Thomas Hart Benton’s painting, “Boom Town,” depicts Borger’s Main Street.

The place had such a bad reputation that her father carried a loaded .45 on the seat beside him. On one occasion a man jumped on the truck’s passenger-side running board. Her father, fearing for his life, grabbed his gun and fired out the window, past the man’s head. The fellow fell, and her father just kept driving.

That story prompted me to check out Borger, a town near the Canadian River, an hour drive northeast of Amarillo. When oil was discovered in the area in March 1925, A.P. (Ace) Borger, a man known in Oklahoma and Texas as a shrewd land promoter, went into partnership with John R. Miller, purchased 240 acres and laid out the town site—named Borger, of course. It only took ninety days of advertising the sensational discovery of “black gold” for the population to reach 45,000—mostly oilmen, roughnecks, panhandlers, bootleggers, and prostitutes—causing the new town to be known as “Booger Town.” The following October Borger was incorporated, and John Miller was elected mayor.

Early Downtown Borger

Early Downtown Borger

There was great progress—a railroad spur arrived; a school district opened; and the three-mile-long Main Street boasted a hamburger stand, a hotel, and a jail. Steam-generated electricity and telephones were available before the end of the year, and before water wells were dug, tank wagons delivered drinking water. However, Mayor Miller had an associate, “Two-Gun Dick” Herwig, who led an organized crime syndicate that opened brothels, dance halls, and gambling facilities along present Tenth Street. Robbery and murder became common practice. With the blessings of local authorities and the king of the Texas bootleggers, W.J. (Shine) Popejoy, illegal moonshine stills and home breweries flourished.

Traffic Jam, Main Street, Borger

Traffic Jam, Main Street, Borger

Governor Dan Moody, by the spring of 1927, had received enough complaints and requests for investigations that he sent a detachment of the Texas Rangers under captains Frank Hamer (famous in 1934 for tracking down and killing Bonnie and Clyde) and Thomas Hickman to clean up the town. Some of the rough crowd departed, but after the district attorney was assassinated in 1929, Governor Moody imposed martial law and sent in the Texas National Guard to restore order.

It was August 1934 before the violence finally came to an end. Town founder Ace Borger, had established himself as president of the Borger State Bank. When the bank failed, Borger was given a two-year prison term for taking deposits while the bank was insolvent. While his conviction was being appealed, Borger was at the post office when he was shot dead by the county treasurer, Arthur Huey. It seems that Huey, a long-time rival of Borger’s, was angry because Borger had not bailed him out of jail when he was arrested for embezzling county funds. Huey shot Borger five times with a Colt .45 pistol, and then took Borger’s gun from his pocket and shot him again before shooting another man who died a few days later. Ironically, Huey claimed self-defense and was acquitted. Three years later he was convicted of theft of county funds and sent to prison.

Borger’s struggles did not end with the violence. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl brought new challenges. The economic crash caused the price of oil and gas to drop, which ended the boom years. Carbon black produced during the oil heyday left a residue of soot that was blown by winds of the Dust Bowl, covering the town in dark-colored grime. The population shifted as Okies, farmers from Oklahoma who lost their land as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, arrived looking for work in the local oil refineries and plants.

Despite the economic problems that came with the Depression, the young men employed during the New Deal by the Works Project Administration (WPA) laid new red brick streets and replaced the boomtown shacks with permanent buildings. World War II introduced a second boom as local oil refineries worked to meet the demand for synthetic rubber and other petroleum products.

By the 1960s the area around Borger was one of the largest producers of oil, carbon black, and petrochemicals in Texas, but automation in the plants meant the loss of jobs, which resulted in a mass exodus. Faced with another decline, the citizens began a citywide renewal—cleanup of the old federal housing and the empty storefronts—proving that “Booger Town” had finally grown up. Borger’s brand new reputation won the 1969 National Civic League designation as an “All-American City.”

Today Borger is a thriving industrial community that serves as an important shipping center for agricultural and petroleum products. The revitalization of the downtown, including the update of building facades and the opening of the Hutchinson County Historical Museum, better known as Boomtown Revisited, followed the restoration of the Morley Theater. Borger has come a long way.

Hutchinson County Historical Museum, known as Boomtown Revisited

Hutchinson County Historical Museum, known as Boomtown Revisited

PHILANTHROPIC MADAM

Mystery surrounds Miss Rita’s early life.  Raised in a prosperous, but unnamed Oregon family in the early 1900s, she left home to dance for a time for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before she joined the vaudeville circuit.  During her first, brief marriage, no one knows why she became a prostitute.

When the Great Depression forced the decline of vaudeville theatres, Miss Rita arrived in Beaumont, the oil city enjoying its second petroleum boom.  She probably knew about the vast wealth in the southeast Texas city from her tours with the vaudeville circuit and from Beaumont’s fame as the locale of Spindletop, the first big oil gusher in 1901 that led to the creation of industry giants like Gulf and Texaco.

Miss Rita rented facilities for her trade from Charles Ainsworth, but soon took a liking to his son Nathaniel.  The couple married and Miss Rita took early retirement.  After several years of financially establishing themselves in Beaumont, Rita and Nathaniel purchased Beaumont’s small Shamrock Hotel.

After Nathaniel died in 1946, Miss Rita sold the Shamrock, and purchased the Dixie Hotel in Beaumont’s thriving red light district. (The Dixie is the white building, second from right)  Employing her knowledge of the prostitution business, she tastefully decorated the Dixie and employed a group of attractive, well-mannered women.  Word spread quickly about her discreet, first-rate establishment.  Some reports claim private entrances allowed customers to enter undetected.

Despite ample competition, business thrived at the Dixie and Miss Rita used her increasing wealth and business sense to make large investments in local real estate.  She also raised her children and even sent her daughter away to a Catholic girl’s school.

Miss Rita became known in the community for her generosity.  She funded little-league teams, supported churches, and even sent a priest through seminary.  Some accounts say the police contacted her when people needed financial help after an accident or some other misfortune.  Miss Rita set aside the third floor of the Dixie for old men who had no place to live. While cheap local hotels charged a dollar a night, Miss Rita charged the men only seven dollars a month, which included their meals.

Finally in 1961, vice and corruption in the red light district reached such a level that a five-man committee conducted three-day televised hearings exposing the sale of liquor to minors, narcotics trafficking, and payoffs to city officials as well as prostitution.  The Dixie closed with all the other facilities.

An IRS investigation resulted in a $100,000 tax bill, forcing Miss Rita to sell all her property except her home and the Dixie.  Apparently she continued her prostitution business out of her home until 1976 when failing health forced her to sell the Dixie to the Gulf Sates Utilities Company who donated it to the Beaumont Heritage Society.

The philanthropic madam moved to Houston to live with her daughter and died in 1978.  Miss Rita’s position in Beaumont’s life earned her a story in a pictorial history of Beaumont. The attached painting “Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher,” by Aaron Arion, belongs to Beaumont’s Tyrell Historical Library.

THE POMPEIIAN VILLA

The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur is a replica of a first century Roman villa complete with the deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. Although it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas Historical Marker, its heyday symbolizes an era of surprising twists and turns.

The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition.  As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions.  Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast.  The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.

Stilwell “believed” his landlocked harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and be a much more profitable locale for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than shipping 1,400 miles to the East Coast.

A “hunch” also kept him from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston.  Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks.  Ocean-going vessels could reach the town that Stilwell modestly named Port Arthur through a freshly dug canal that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.

Three wealthy investors John W. Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. Tragically, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached the terminus.  Apparently Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.

The ambitious businessmen decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for summer cottages.  Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion.  Ellwood built the Pompeiian Villa for $50,000 and then sold it to Hopkins, who wanted the lavish villa for his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ wife and daughters arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas summers.  They refused to step from their carriage.

Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

On January 10, 1901, Sprindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur.  The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Sprindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.

The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the The Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand.  James Hopkins rented his beautiful Villa to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil.  Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for 10 percent of the stock in one of the new oil operations called the Texas Company.  Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years.  When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen.  Oil companies started up and went broke overnight.  Perhaps Craig had not developed his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.

SPINDLETOP

Patilla Higgins is one of those people that put Texas on the world oil map, and he rarely gets a mention.  He came on the scene in the mid-1880s in a brawl with a local deputy marshal that cost Higgins his arm and the marshal his life.  Since the scrape occurred after dark, a plea of self-defense got Higgins off the hook.  I don’t know how.

Two years later, Higgins got born again at a Baptist revival and gave up forever associating with his wild crowd, swearing, drinking, gambling, and even smoking.  Thanks to his new lifestyle, a fellow Baptist and wealthy lumberman, George Carroll, hired Higgins as a buyer of east Texas timberland.

Meantime Higgins began teaching Sunday school, and taking his class on picnics to “Big Hill,” a salt dome rising from the flat prairie land south of Beaumont in southeast Texas.  For entertainment, he showed the kids how to punch cane poles into the hillside and light the gas that escaped.

Higgins only attended three or four years of school, but he read extensively and became convinced that despite the “experts’” claims to the contrary, oil lay in abundance under Big Hill. Eventually Higgins convinced Carroll and two others to form the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and hire Higgins as manager.  Higgins selected the name “Gladys” in honor of a seven-year-old girl in his Sunday school class.  Higgins held such a firm belief that oil waited to be discovered that he drew plans for a model industrial complex named Gladys City adjacent to the future oil field.

The drillers ignored Higgins’ insistence that oil lay at 1,000 to 1,100 feet, which was deep for those days, and they were ready to give up after four dry wells in a row.  One man, Anthony Lucas, a mining engineer, continued to believe in Higgins’ theory.  Lucas convinced Carroll and his partners to get financial backing from Dick and Andrew Mellon, sons of T. Mellon the Pittsburg banking giant.  The $300,000 deal cut Higgins out of the business.

On January 10, 1901, what Anthony Lucas described as a “geyser of oil” blew in on Big Hill.  Oil spewed 800,000 barrels over 100 feet above the well for nine days before it could be capped. Spindletop ushered in the petroleum age, and people stopped laughing at Patillo Higgins.  In fact, he gained respect from the community.  Anthony Lucas, however, became the hero.

Patillo Higgins did not tuck tail and run.  He managed his own lease.  Six more gushers blew in before April 18 when a well came in on Higgins’ land.  Get-rich-quickers swarmed in from all over the world to   make fortunes and lose them again overnight.  The derrick floors, which measured seventeen feet across, sat so close together that a person could walk a mile without stepping on solid ground.  In the wild scramble to get rich, overproduction caused a decline in two years, and by 1911 the area was a virtual ghost town.

In 1925 production began again at more than 2,500 feet on the south flank of the dome.  Oil flowed easily at 5,000 barrels a day bringing another boom. This time speculators did not roar in.  A handful of major oil companies controlled the flow.  The petroleum industry had grown up.

It is said that Higgins sued Carroll and his partners for $4 million, and settled out of court “satisfied”.  He continued as a wildcatter, making and losing fortunes until his death at 92.  Some say he ended up one of the wealthiest men in Texas.

As for Gladys City, it developed as a boomtown of frame shanties, not the model city of Higgins’ dreams.  Today, Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown, operated by Lamar University, offers a self-guided tour of the grounds and fifteen re-constructed buildings filled with objects from the oil boom era.  On January 14 visitors are invited to the Lucas Gusher Celebration.  If you clicked on the site, you may have noticed that Higgins’ name isn’t included.