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Bartee Haile: “I’ll drink all the oil in West Texas!”

This Week in Texas History: A column

A determined wildcatter brought in the very first oil well in West Texas on Oct. 21, 1917. The startling discovery began a frenzied boom that went bust in no time flat.

The region around Ranger, a sleepy community 100 miles west of Fort Worth, did not look like crude country. “I’ll drink all the oil in West Texas!” was a common wisecrack of the day that seemed to have a ring of truth.

In fact, after Spindletop and similar strikes along the Gulf Coast around the turn of the century, the Texas oil boom simply petered out. By 1915 the Lone Star State ranked a weak fourth in petroleum production behind Oklahoma, California and, believe it or not, Kansas.

But a mining engineer named W.K. Gordon was absolutely convinced that beneath the peanut patches and cotton fields near Ranger lurked an enormous pool of black gold. Ignoring ridicule from local know-it-alls, Gordon persuaded his boss at nearby Thurber to lease 25,000 acres and to finance the long shot.

After hitting natural gas, a good-for-nothing irritant in those days, the initial site was abandoned. A second well was sunk on John McCloskey’s farm two miles outside the Ranger city limits, but it too looked a waste of time and money.

Gordon’s impatient backer told him to forget the whole thing but against his better judgment finally approved a plan to drill a little deeper. On that fateful autumn afternoon in 1917, the earth shuddered and then erupted with the pent-up power of the ages sending a black geyser high in the Texas sky.

The race for Ranger was on, and not even torrential rains could deter the familiar flood of humanity that inundated the tiny town. The daily downpour turned the dirt streets into a quagmire from which trapped autos could be extricated only by mule teams. Even the lobby of the bank, which soon did a land office business, was ankle-deep in mud.

Although most fortune seekers were lucky to leave with the clothes on their backs, a few struck it rich. An especially bold character bought an oil lease at a neighboring town with a worthless personal check for $6,000. Hustling back to Ranger, he sold the lease for a $14,000 certified check, which he deposited in the nick of time to cover the bogus payment. The handsome $8,000 profit gave him his start, and within six months he was a bona fide millionaire.

But others blew the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or squandered their windfall. Playing hard to get, one farmer refused $100,000 in cash for his leases and held out for a cool million. No one met his price, and he never saw a single dime.

Another grabbed what he could, bought a luxurious railcar and set out to see the world. The sodbuster returned several months later in a covered wagon without a penny to his name. “I wasn’t intended to be a rich man,” he sheepishly confessed.

The vice and violence that inevitably accompanied a boom ran rampant in Roaring Ranger. A shaken policeman reported that on a particularly memorable night he was shot at no less than 27 times. The sun always rose on a number of corpses, victims of muggings, murder or just plain meanness.

Chief of police Byron Parrish kept the situation from getting completely out of hand. A former Texas Ranger, who packed a pair of .45’s, he preferred the direct approach.

Following a close call with hired assassins, Chief Parrish confronted the gambler presumably behind the attack. He disarmed the suspect, pistol-whipped him with his own weapon and marched the dazed undesirable at gunpoint to the railroad station. The taxpayers were spared the expense of incarceration and trial, and the gambler never showed his face again in Ranger.

But rambunctious Ranger could stomach law and order only in small doses. When the Texas Rangers cracked down on gambling, illegal alcohol and prostitution, many residents cried foul. In retaliation for the unwelcome raid, two state lawmen were arrested for wounding a well-known bootlegger.
In angry response, Austin sent an entire company of khaki cops to the rescue. The rash authorities quickly came to their senses and freed the Rangers. A grand jury no-billed the pair and apologized for the unfortunate “mistake.”

By 1920 the clock was striking twelve for Cinderella Ranger, which had mushroomed into a brawling boomtown of 16,000. Reckless drilling had ruined wells with plenty of oil still in them, and the end of World War I sent the price of crude tumbling to a dollar a barrel. The party was over.

Speculators, roughnecks and the assorted riffraff moved on to greener pastures. The population plummeted to 6,200 in 1930 before settling at 3,000 for the rest of the century. In exchange for phony prosperity, the permanent inhabitants reclaimed the peace and quiet of rural life.

Maybe the tax collector, who made a fast $3 million only to wind up flat broke, summed it up best. “It was,” he said with a sad smile, “a lot of fun while it lasted.”

Now taking pre-orders for “Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters” the latest “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today for mid-November delivery by mailing a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.