The Days After Christmas, Part 5: The Man Who Made Everything Right
December 30, 2011
Three weeks and two days after Malcolm Crim gathered together with the multitudes to watch the old wildcatter draw oil from the bottom of Daisy Bradford’s farm, he and Ed Bateman spudded in their own well on Lou Della Crim’s farmstead four miles south of Kilgore. Malcolm’s mother had lost her husband, and the drill bit tore into the ground not far from his grave.
Both men were wagering every dime they had to spend on a hole that neither of them could afford.
Bateman was in the oil business all right, but the riches associated with crude had thus far eluded him but never dimmed his thirst for finding a measure of wealth buried in woodbine sand. His was nothing more than a small, family-owned operation. His wife worked for the company, and her brother had been employed as a driller. Dry holes were nothing new to Ed Bateman. In fact, he had never struck oil before, but now, perhaps, he had finally found a patch of ground that wouldn’t seduce, then disappoint him again.
Long hours and long days were crippling. Money ran scarce, then was gone, and Bateman had more money than food. He was hungry. His crew was starving. His family was famished.
The pipe was shaking far down in the hole, and Bateman doubted that it would go any deeper. He had already asked for about as much as that pipe could give him. For luck, which had thus far escaped them, the crew, bedeviled with superstition, stepped up onto the rig, and each of them tossed something personal down into the well.
Bateman’s wife, Caroline, was right behind. She removed a gold filigree bracelet from her wrist and held it over the hole. She took a deep breath, dropped the bracelet, and watched it tumble down into the dark abyss of a well that was either full of oil or as empty as Ed Bateman’s pockets.
The drill chewed its way down to 2,500 feet, and the old coffee pot rig began to bend and shudder. If the manufacturer was right, it couldn’t go any deeper, and the mud on the bit neither tasted nor smelled like oil. The strain on the derrick had become unbearable, and the weather turned worse. After months of a harsh, lingering drought, rain began to spill day after day on the sun-baked earth. Creeks swelled and rushed out of their banks. Cars and trucks were immobilized as they sank into the unforgiving grip of red clay.
Bateman had placed W. E. “Checkbook” Cain in charge of the drilling operation, and Cain managed to coax the pipe down another thousand feet even though the odds said he couldn’t do it. Cain’s face was creased with worry. He should have already hit oil-bearing sand if Dad Joiner’s report had been accurate, and he had no reason to doubt it.
He checked the mud down in the hole. Nothing. If he drilled much deeper, the rig was bound to splinter, and the chill of a winter rain wrapped itself around the Lou Della farm. As hard as the long hot summer had been, the rains were worse. The heat had been uncomfortable. The wet cold hurt.
The bit broke.Malcolm Crim drove back to his store, took out eighty-six hard-earned dollars, and gave them to Bateman to buy a new one.
Christmas came, and no one on the rig had any cause to celebrate. A day later, Checkbook Cain drilled into the elusive woodbine sand at 3,629 feet, and he found unmistakable traces of oil in the core sample. The wooden derrick was bowing heavily under the strain, but it refused to break.
A roughneck, his face and clothes awash with grease, grime, and oil, stumbled through the back door of the little clapboard Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. He found Lou Della Crim sitting in her favorite pew, waiting with patience between the first scripture and the last amen, and he yelled, “The well’s in, Mrs. Crim. It’s a gusher.”
She nodded, smiled softly at the minister, and he continued preaching. The oil had been out on the farm waiting on her for at least sixty-two years, she said. It certainly wouldn’t mind waiting until the sermon had ended. Her only regret was that Malcolm had insisted on going to the well instead of church that morning.
On the Sunday morning, three days after Christmas, that the crew hit pay dirt on the Crim farm, Hollis Lee, a small boy, headed out to see the full glory of Kilgore’s own discovery well.
A lady standing at the well site turned to him and asked, “You boys own any land around here?”
“Yes, ma ‘m,” he replied, “we sure do.”
“How far away is it?”
“I guess it’s about two or three miles.”
The lady smiled and said, “Well, then ya’ll be rich.”
Malcolm Crim drove back to the mercantile store. Times had been hard. Drought had scorched the cotton and ruined the truck crops. The Great Depression had robbed a lot of people of their money and their dignity. Many were able to survive solely on handouts, the few vegetables they grew in their yards, and credit, especially credit. Malcolm Crim had been giving most all of them credit for years. Some were several hundred dollars in debt, and some had no idea how or if they would ever be able to pay him back. But Crim trusted his neighbors, and they depended on him.
He asked everyone who owed him money, which was almost everyone in Kilgore, to meet him down at the mercantile store. When they arrived, he gathered everyone around him, tore up the debts, and burned the scraps of paper. “We’re wiping the slate clean today,” he said. “Now, we’re even with everybody.”
Malcolm Crim had other work to do. He emptied the store, leased the land beneath it, and began drilling. He would never again have to plead with anyone to sink a well on his land – either in town, under his store, or out in the country. During those days after Christmas in 1930, he became a wealthy man, and his hometown was changed forever.
Caleb Pirtle III has authored three books on Kilgore and the East Texas oilfield: Echoes from Forgotten Streets, Visoions of Forgotten Streets, and Life on Kilgore’s Unforgettable Streets.