A Taste of Texas Tea

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.

PROVIDENCE IN THE OIL BUSINESS?

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.