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.

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 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.