Lose the faith and lose a fortune.
November 16, 2014
SHORTLY AFTER WORLD WAR I, farmers who gathered in the downtown hamlet of Kilgore to discuss the rise and mostly the fall of prices for the crops, cotton, and timber that lay in their fields, adjusted their bib overalls, wiped the sweat off their faces, and talked about the strange behavior of a young man wandering down in the Sabine River bottom.
He had a curious little contraption with him.
Called it a doodlebug.
Said he had bought it with his winnings from a poker game. It looked a lot like an automobile jack, and it was, he said, guaranteed to find petroleum hiding far beneath the ground’s surface.
His written instructions had been simple enough. Just set it down on the ground, they said, and when those oil deposits exerted a certain magic pressure, then the handle would automatically drop.
The farmers laughed.
“He’s crazy,” some said.
“He’s been conned.”
“He ain’t gonna con us.”
The young man paid them no attention. For years he had been hearing about the oil seeps that occasionally rose to the top of the soil. Maybe the earth was bubbling over, he thought. Maybe there was a lot more oil, even a reservoir of oil, lying deeper. Maybe fate had chosen him to find it.
Down among the briars of a pasture east of Kilgore, the young man set his doodlebug down, and the handle immediately fell and fell hard. The pressure was so strong, so powerful, that he couldn’t raise it again.
He stepped cautiously across a barbed wire fence and made his way out into a cotton field. Again the handle dropped. Again he couldn’t budge it.
Nearer the river, the young man watched the handle fall for a third time. He was bewildered and smitten with disappointment. Then frustration set in. He angrily tossed his doodlebug into the Sabine River, crawled back into his car and headed for Dallas.
He would tell anyone who listened, “According to that damn thing, there’s oil everywhere. It’s a gyp.”
The farmers nodded wisely and turned back to their fields. They could have told him so. Only a fool would waste his time dreaming about riches lying beneath land that begrudgingly grew their crops. They had known about the search for oil breaking good men before.
The War Between the States had been only a recent memory when a few wildcatters tore into the earth with their drill bits and even produced a little oil. But the cost to find it was far more than the oil was worth, and the shallow wells were finally shut down and forgotten.
Geologists from several of the nation’s major oil companies had long been tempted and taunted by the suspicion that oil lay beneath the pines, even though a difficult earth refused to give it up. They explored the land and discovered absolutely nothing that would cause them to invest a dime or a fortune in worthless dirt that might be good for cotton but little else.
Their reports were all the same. East Texas was barren. If any oil did exist, it was obviously too deep and certainly not favorable for commercial development. The geologists tossed their samples away, packed up their equipment, and headed down winding roads that would take them to other fields where the dirt smelled more like oil and money.
A few stubborn old-school wildcatters read the sketchy reports and determined that they understood the mysteries of the earth better than some geologist who was a stranger to the pine thickets. They tested the depths of Rusk County, drilling seventeen wells. They discovered dirt as dry beneath the ground as it was on top.
The farmers kept right on plowing and planting. The cotton stalks might be stunted and spindly, but they were real.
Oil was a myth.
No one doubted it untl the night the ground threatened to rip the Daisy Bradford No. 3 drilling rig apart. The derrick rattled. It shook and shuddered and almost shattered with a pillar of oil belching its way out of the abyss of a deep pit, showering the pines and painting the bright sky the color of ebony.
A witness recalled, “First, you felt the earth tremble and shake, then you saw black oil shooting as high as the derrick. People were beside themselves. They wallowed in the oil. They swam in it. They rubbed it all over themselves. They had to be told to put out their cigarettes for fear they would blow us all up.”
Some said the roar sounded like a locomotive rushing madly down the tracks, and oil fell like a warm, gentle rain upon the ground around him, touching the shoulders of the just and the unjust, the sinners and the repentant, alike.
Somewhere amidst the bramble brush and beggar’s lice that surrounded the farmland fences of East Texas, down near the banks of the Sabine River, an abandoned doodlebug lay rusted and forgotten.
The man who would have been rich was long gone.
He lost the faith.
He lost a fortune.
The doodlebug had not lied.
And no one was laughing anymore.