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.

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.

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.