The Days After Christmas, Part 3: The Desperate Gamble
December 28, 2011
The test for oil on the afternoon of October fifth, 1930, was as good as anyone hoped it would be. Mud and oil shot up the wooden legs of the derrick, and farmers heard the sound, as ominous as dry-weather thunder, a quarter of a mile away.
The ordeal had gone on as long as it could go. The well would either come blasting in or crumble at Dad Joiner’s feet. But the old wildcatter was nowhere in sight. The gossip was running rampant. Depending on who was handing out the latest rumor, Dad Joiner was ill, or worse, hiding and afraid to face the crowd. Some smelled a hoax. Dad’s got our money and gone, they feared.
Then the old wildcatter was among them, slowly making his way through the crowd. He said he had been out on the road – reading obituaries, courting widows, and raising funds – just in case the oil was deeper than his geologist Doc Lloyd had predicted it would be. But maybe this time, he thought, he had spent the last dollar he would need.
No real gusher of oil had yet blemished the ground, but the roads to, through, and past Kilgore were already swarming with mechanics, carpenters, equipment salesmen, machinists, poor boy roustabouts, and the out-of work who had hungry families back home. They mingled with the con men, bootleggers, pickpockets, and ladies of the evening who offered what they had for two dollars, if anyone had two dollars, and leisurely strolled the streets of Henderson and Kilgore in beach pajamas. None could resist the promise, the hope, the expectations of black gold.
The rig cast a web of frantic shadows in the late afternoon sun. Men were ripping the tires from their trucks and throwing them into flames that were flickering and dying away in the boilers, and the pipes groaned wearily as the crew worked into the night amidst smoke and the stench of burning rubber. Torches flickered expectantly in the darkness, and the hole was as black as the night. The ground obviously had no intention of giving up its oil without a fight.
The crowd grew smaller as many gave up and headed home. They had been disappointed before. They feared they would be again. But Laster kept the drill bit turning, probing an abyss that the hands of desperate men had dug into woodbine sand, and suddenly, he heard a rumble growling down deep in the ground.
Douglas I. Lloyd recalled, “The boys on the rig had been bailing out for some time when finally enough mud had been lifted to turn the wildcat loose. There was a muffled roar, followed by a rushing sound that rent the air like the hiss of lightning. The next few moments were like some fantastical dream. A huge fountain of oil was rising into the sky splashing through the crown block like ‘Old Faithful,’ the geyser.
“The crowd, mostly farmers who had wandered up to the rig out of the piney woods at the sound of the boilers early that morning, went wild with screams of joy. Doubtless, many of them thought that such great wealth would immediately lift the nation out of the strangling grip of the Depression that was now upon the country.
“As the great gusher roared its challenge to men of adventure and fortune, the crowd closed into a semi-circle and started rushing up to the derrick floor, shouting hysterically as though they intended to take a bath in the fountain of ‘black gold’ as a token of their great joy. Many of them were holding lighted cigarettes. The danger of fire around an oil well is an age-old tragedy.”
The shouts were loud and on the edge of panic: “Put out the fires. Put out the cigarettes.”
An alert deputy sheriff stepped out in front of the on-rushing spectators, fired several shots over their head, and brought the wild crowd under moderate control.
The ground trembled and threatened to rip the 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.
Mike Marwil 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. Miss Daisy danced alone, her face freckled with oil and mud. Men in the crowd were praying in case the Good Lord or anyone else of importance was listening.
Dad Joiner leaned his weary shoulders against the derrick and spoke for all of East Texas when he said, “I always dreamed it. I never believed it.” 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.
Dad Joiner’s life in the oil patch had fluctuated between good luck, bad luck, and no luck at all. Beneath Miss Daisy Bradford’s farm, he discovered the riches that had always seemed to elude him. But this time, he had been at the right place at the right time with the right hole in the ground.
If Dad Joiner had drilled a quarter of a mile to the east, he would have missed the river of oil altogether, bringing in another duster, leaving East Texas in the tight-fisted grip of the Great Depression, and walking out of the pine thickets a broke and broken old man.
To be Continued:
Caleb Pirtle III is author of three books on the East Texas oilfield, Echoes from Forgotten Streets, Visions of Forgotten Streets, and Life on Kilgore’s Unforgettable Streets.