The Days After Christmas, Part 4: The Man Who Believed in Fortune Tellers

While Dad Joinesr was desperately trying to raise money to drill the Daisy Bradford No. 1, Malcolm Crim walked down the streets of Kilgore and believed with all his heart that what lay beneath the good East Texas earth was far more valuable than the wasted farmlands that sprawled across the top. All he heard was laughter and ridicule.

The drought-stricken soil grew a few vegetables for families to eat but little else. Malcolm Crim was not a farmer. He owned a little mercantile store downtown, peddling, he once said, everything from candy to coffins.  As the decade of the twenties wound down, his cash drawer was filled with a few coins and greenbacks, but mostly IOUs.  Crim knew he would never get ahead living on IOUs.  He couldn’t even catch up.

fortune teller
Malcolm Crim

Malcolm Crim ignored the reports from geologists who claimed, in good conscience, that the earth below Kilgore was barren and worthless.  He paid no attention to the seventeen wells that tempted East Texas before coming up dry.  The drilling crew called them dusters.  Crim merely wrote it off to bad luck.

After all, he had it on good authority that oil did indeed reside down beneath the pine straw – a thousand feet, maybe two thousand feet.  It didn’t make any difference.  The oil was there all right.  A fortune teller had told him.  She knew a lot about his past.  There was no reason for him to doubt that she had a clear view of his future as well, and the West Texas Gypsy, for fifty cents, had given him a psychic glimpse of the land under his mother’s farm and around Kilgore turning black with oil.

Malcolm Crim, without hesitation, began obtaining tentative and scattered leases on thirty thousand acres in 1920.  He even secured some leases on the farm of his mother, Mrs. Lou Della.  Now all he needed to do was track down some driller, any driller, who had enough faith in Crim’s fortune teller to sink a wildcat well somewhere, anywhere, on the acreage he had been able to tie together.

To each independent oil company he found, Crim made the same offer: “Move your drilling rig in here and drill anywhere you please, and I will give you the lease on every foot of the land.”

His plea fell on deaf ears. Any wildcat venture, they decided, would be a worthless waste of time, money, and work.  The drillers had better things to do and more rewarding places to search for oil.

You boys are making a big mistake, Crim told them. They only smiled and watched him walk out their doors, heading back to the dust that hovered over East Texas like a gritty fog.

No one had watched the exasperating failures of Dad Joiner’s poor boy venture with more interest than Malcolm Crim.  Even while the old wildcatter was preparing to drill Daisy Bradford No. 3, Crim was meeting in Kilgore with two employees of a little independent Fort Worth oil company operated by Ed Bateman.  Bateman had been a poet, an author, and newspaperman with the Dallas Times Herald, and he was intrigued with the promise of oil in East Texas.  While searching for a tract of land to lease, he had met Elmer Hays, living on a farm near the Pirtle community.  Hays told him, “I’ll help you find a lease if you’ll let me drill the well.”

Bateman frowned.  Hays, dressed in his faded overalls, looked more like a dirt farmer than a driller.  But Hays told him, “If I’m not qualified to drill your well, then I won’t drill it.  How’s that for a bargain?”

For Ed Bateman, it was good enough, and Hays led him straight to Malcolm Crim.  It was time, he thought, that two good men with the same dream finally got together.  Crim was not a difficult man to find.  As his sister told Bateman, “You just pick out the man in the raggedest britches and the slouchiest hat.”

Down near Overton, Dad Joiner was listening to the geologic wisdom of a man who had dug for gold, ridden with Pancho Villa, and peddled patent medicine in a traveling medicine show.  Malcolm Crim had always believed the words of a West Texas Gypsy fortune teller who predicted that the earth beneath his mother’s farm was rife with the promise of oil.  To Crim, one authority seemed to be as credible as the other.

He made the oil operator an offer he didn’t think that Bateman could refuse – a lease on four thousand acres for a mere two dollars an acre.

“We don’t want to buy any leases,” one of the oilmen snapped, knowing full well that it would be financially difficult enough to buy lunch.

“What I want you to do,” Crim snapped, “is drill.”

Bateman laughed. No oil had yet splashed across the East Texas earth and probably never would.

To be continued.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of three books on Kilgore and the East Texas oilfield: Echoes from Forgotten Streets, Visions of Forgotten Streets, and Life on Kilgore’s Unforgettable Streets.

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