The Prophet of Spindletop

Pattillo Higgins

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

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

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.

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.

The Cattle Baron’s Daughter

An elegant 1930s Greek revival temple in Victoria, the Royston Nave Museum, has a story to tell of vast wealth, cultural challenge, creative genius,

Royston Nave Museum

Royston Nave Museum

and high living as broad as the Texas landscape. In 2012 the Nave Museum held a month-long exhibit titled “The Cattle Baron’s Daughter and the Artists Who Loved Her—James Ferdinand McCan (1869-1925) and Royston Nave (1886-1931).”

Emily McFaddin McCan Nave by Royston Nave

Emily McFaddin McCan Nave by Royston Nave

The cattle baron’s daughter was Emily McFaddin, a beautiful, artistic young woman born in 1876 on a vast cattle ranch outside Victoria. The cattle baron was James Alfred McFaddin, son and brother of the Beaumont McFaddins, owners of vast stretches of ranch land, including Big Hill, site of the world-changing oil discovery in 1901 known as Spindletop.

James McFaddin had moved to Refugio County and began ranching in 1858 with 130 head of cattle from his father’s herd. After serving in the Civil War, James McFaddin returned to Refugio, served as a one-man bank, loaning money to his neighbors, and buying land where the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers converge. As his holdings increased, James McFaddin built a three-story mansion in Victoria with an art studio for Emily in the tower above the center of the home.

The first artist in this story was the lively James Ferdinand McCan from County Kerry, 416814_10150616754062037_1560116650_nIreland, who arrived in the United States at age seventeen. He settled in San Antonio and opened an art studio. An exhibition of his work caught the eye of Henrietta King, wife of the wealthy cattleman Richard King. Henrietta moved McCan to the King Ranch where he served as artist-in-residence for two years. During that time his reputation blossomed. Al McFaddin, Emily’s brother, commissioned McCan in 1896 to paint a portrait of his and Emily’s parents, James and Margaret McFaddin. Emily and McCan married the following year and moved happily into Victoria’s social whirl, entertaining in the home her parents gave them as a wedding gift. Their son, Claude Kerry McCan, was born in 1899.

The second artist in the saga was Royston Nave who was born in LaGrange and began his studies under his mother Lou Scott Royston, a well-known Texas painter. He studied under several

Royston Nave, WWI

Royston Nave, WWI

New York artists and became renowned with many one-man exhibits of his portraits. After serving in WWI, he movied to Victoria to study art with James McCan. The two artists became such good friends, that Nave painted a self-portrait that he gave to McCan with the inscription, “To my friend, J.F.M.” and signed “Royston Nave.” The portrait hangs today in the front hall of the home built for Emily when she married McCan.

Emily and McCan divorced in 1916, and McCan moved to Boerne where he continued to paint the Hill Country scenes he loved until his death in 1925.

McCan Hill Country scene

McCan Hill Country scene

A year after her divorce, Emily and Nave were married. The couple began a whirlwind life of worldwide travel with her brother Al and his wife. They finally settled for two years in New York where Nave enjoyed continued success with portraiture. In the late 1920s they returned to Victoria where Nave painted in his studio, and they enjoyed the social and cultural life of the city until Nave died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age forty-four.

The family was devastated, and after a year of mourning Emily commissioned the father/son architectural team of Atlee and Robert Ayers to design a fitting memorial for Royston Nave. The Greek revival temple opened in October 1932 as the Royston Nave Museum to house the work of Royston Nave and the library of the Bronte Study Club. Nave’s portraits and his landscapes hung above the stacks of books until 1976 when the city of Victoria constructed a new library.

Emily continued her cultural and community interests until her death in 1943, even hosting Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940 when the first lady visited Victoria.

After Victoria built its new library, Emily’s heirs deeded the Nave Museum to the city to be used as a regional art museum, and in 2003 it became the property of the Victoria Regional Museum Association. Noted for six to eight compelling exhibits each year that range from classical to modern, the McFaddin and McCan descendants agreed to sponsor an exhibit of the works of both artists, which had never been shown under the same roof. Family and friends generously loaned their private works from both artists to create the delightful exhibit know as “The Cattle Baron’s Daughter and the Artists Who Loved Her—James Ferdinand McCan (1869-1925) and Royston Nave (1886-1931.”

Emily by Royston Nave

Emily by Royston Nave


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, 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.