The Days After Christmas, Part 2: Rusty Pipes and Dreams

All of East Texas lay in the grip of the Great Depression when Dad Joiner swore that he would find the well of the world. His words were hope. But the farmers doubted him. After all, big oil companies had drilled, hit 17 dusters, and swore the land was as barren as an empty bucket.

The summer of 1927 hammered East Texas with unmerciful heat. The searing winds felt as though they had been blown from the back end of the devil’s furnace as Dad Joiner sat down with Daisy Bradford and, with as much poetry as his old heart could muster, explained how fortunes made from oil could greatly benefit the impoverished region that was suffering from the curse of the Great Depression.

East Texas lay in the miseries of the Great Depression

His words painted vivid portraits of new schools, new hospitals, new museums.  Hunger would have to pack up and go somewhere else because tables would be full for a change, he said.  There would be jobs for men and groceries for babies. Dad Joiner could make it happen, he said.  All he needed was leases on her land.  The old wildcatter could drill anywhere he wanted in East Texas, but it was her land that sheltered the oil.  Her land could make a difference.

Daisy Bradford smiled.  She was a good and Christian woman, and his plea suddenly gave her a new purpose in life.  She and Dad read the Bible together, although he omitted the verse about widows trusting him, and breathed a silent prayer as they watched the sun drop down behind the pines. On August 11, Daisy Bradford leased him 925.5 acres for fifty cents an acre.  It was the least she could do to chase away the misery and poverty that had settled down like vermin around the farmsteads of her neighbors.

Now all Dad Joiner had to do was find $462.75 to pay her.

Dad Joiner worked out of an office that was nothing more than a storage room in the back of Walter Tucker’s general store in Overton. He sat at an old roll-top desk, surrounded by canned good grown rusty, drafted oil leases, and printed genuine, authentic twenty-five dollar Rusk County Oil Syndicate Certificates – guaranteeing that whoever owned the would strike it rich as soon as Dad did.

Since the general store was losing money, and Walter Tucker had sadly decided to go out of business, Dad Joiner turned him into an oilman. The deal was simple enough. Walter’s job was to sit with businessmen and urge, plead, beg, persuade, or even coerce them, if necessary, to invest in the well that Dad Joiner was promising to drill in Daisy Bradford’s pasture.

Walter Tucker’s daughter, Beverly, recalled, “Dad Joiner had run out of money and had to raise cash if he wanted to continue. The old wildcatter faced a real challenge. In East Texas, most people were dirt-poor farmers who did not have two cents to rub together, so the only way Dad knew to raise the needed funds was by selling oil leases for whatever he could get. Being able to raise only nickels and dimes created a problem that took a lot of ingenuity and courage. But desperate men do desperate things. Dad sold the same leases over and over.”

Dad Joiner, described as “a pie-faced old man who wore a tie in the field,” stood on the edge of Daisy Bradford’s pasture and watched as the ramshackle pine and oak derrick slowly began to take a bare, skeletal shape beside the shadows of a wildwood thicket.  A pile of second-hand equipment lay in the dust, and those who had voiced faith in the irascible old wildcatter weren’t nearly as confident as they had been when Dad was out talking instead of drilling.  For almost two years, he had sold leases, some more than once, scraping enough money together to sink the Daisy Bradford Number 1.

For months, the drill bit chewed its way through the dirt. The boilers were barely able to summon up enough power to keep the pipe turning. The pipe was junk, worn, and full of rust. The dirt had turned to rock.

At 1,098 feet, the drill bit jammed. Dad Joiner sighed wearily. He kept the crew working.  The odds had been stacked against him before. The crew slowly and meticulously maneuvered the bit down another thousand feet before the pipe stuck again in the vise-like grip of the rock, this time for good. It wouldn’t budge, and the hopes of East Texas were trapped down in the ground with it. Maybe the big oil companies had been right, Dad Joiner thought. He knelt beside the well, reached down, and picked up a fistful of dirt.

No oil. No money. Just dirt

The roustabouts moved their rig across the pasture and spudded in the Daisy Bradford Number 2.  East Texas had given Dad Joiner its last few dollars, and the old wildcatter had poured them down an empty hole.  Behind his back he heard the sardonic laughter, the ridicule.  He was nothing more than an old fool, East Texas said, chasing a foolish dream. A geologist for Humble told Dad’s crew, “I’ll drink every barrel of oil you get out of that hole.”

His crew reached 2,518 feet, deeper than they had ever gone before.  Without warning, the rusty old drill pipe twisted off.  For fourteen arduous days it lay buried in the bore hole as men frantically worked day and night to dislodge the pipe and fish it back out of the ground.

It was a typical spring morning in 1930, already too hot and much too sultry.  Joiner sent word for the crew to skid the rig three hundred yards west of Daisy Bradford’s farmhouse. Miss Daisy, her arms folded across her chest, stood defiantly in their way. “You can’t drill there,” she yelled.

“Why not?”

“That’s where I’m putting in my garden.”

Ed Laster, the driller, telephoned the old wildcatter, expecting the worst, but Joiner had already faced too many problems to let this one disturb him.  “Tell the boys to get Miss Daisy’s tractor and skid the rig any place she wants,” the old man said. “And let her tell ‘em where to put the well in.”

Laster walked back to the pasture.  Miss Daisy had not moved.  “Which way do you want us to move the rig then?” he asked.

“Move it the way of least resistance, boys,” she answered.  “Just keep moving it downhill.”

It would not be that simple nor that easy. The crew had dragged the rig maybe two hundred yards when a sill on one of the skids cracked on a rock.  Dad knew he could buy another sill down at the sawmill, but that would cost him ten dollars, and he had already spent his last ten dollars. Dad had lost his credit years ago, and nobody in the pine thickets was eager to take his twenty-five dollar syndicate certificates anymore.  The paper was worth more than the certificates were. East Texas had lost faith in his coupons, and it was losing faith in him.

Dad Joiner inspected the broken skid.  The rig had simply gone as far as it could go.  The old wildcatter stood and kicked at the ground that kept defying him.  His smile was forced and full of frustration. “We’ll drill right here,” he announced.

To be continued:


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