The Gamble for Giddings Oil

I had heard of Giddings when I was a boy. My father and I had even wandered through the unfenced pastures around Giddings and Dime Box picking up pieces of agatized and petrified wood for our rock collection. It was flat and barren. A few scrub oaks. Some dry creek beds. Peanut vines dying in the fields. The roads that ran to Giddings usually ran right on through the town. No one, other than a few stray rockhounds, had no reason to ever stay for very long. I had no idea that great vaults of oil lay down deep in the Austin chalk beneath the burnt pastures. Very few others did either. I had no intention of ever going back. But the opportunity to write a book changed my mind.

A pump jack working in the Giddings Oilfield.

Several years ago, I teamed up with my good friend Terry Stembridge to produce three books about the East Texas oilfield. He had worked closely with Max Williams, the oil operator who drilled the well that ultimately triggered the boom. He suggested that I meet with Max and hear his story. Terry thought the battle to develop the Giddings field would make a good book. And it did.

Here is an intrview I did when the book was published.

Question:         What was so intriguing about the boom?

Answer:           The players themselves. The Giddings boom was discovered by an odd collection of men with very little experience in the oilfield. In reality, they had absolutely no business being in Giddings or drilling for oil. But they defied the odds, then they beat the odds.

Question:         What was so important about the boom?

Answer:           Giddings as an oilfield has flown under the radar far too long. Major oil companies and independents had been drilling for oil since the 1930s but had very little luck. Giddings, in fact, was known as the field of broken dreams. But during the 1970s, a handful of oil operators and a genius geologist discovered the second largest oilfield in the continental United States during the past fifty years.

Question:         Why was Giddings known as the field of broken dreams?

Answer:           The oil was in the fractures of the Austin Chalk, the devil’s chalk. There were no great pools or rivers of oil. A driller had to find the right fracture, the right crack in the chalk. He had to go down 9,000 feet just to reach the chalk, then it was like drilling through concrete. Historically, men had drilled, the oil came rushing in like a gusher out of control, and within two or three days, the oil flow was down to a drop. A lot of good men went busted in the chalk. Max Williams said some of the old-time oilmen referred to it as the “Austin Choke.”

Question:         What made this quest for oil different in the 1970s?

Geologist Ray Holfield, the guru of the Austin Chalk

Answer:           Those first oil operators – men like Max Williams, Irv Deal, and Pat Holloway – had guts and gumption and a geologist named Ray Holifield, who cracked the code of the chalk. Ray recognized seismic anticlines and fault lines similar to those he had found while working the Middle East. There were a lot of small fractures. The secret was to locate the big ones, then frac the wells with mud and water to create even larger fractures and bigger reservoirs of oil.

Question:         Is Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk a technological study of oil exploration?

Answer:           No. It’s about the swashbuckling men who rolled up their sleeves, tempted fate, and found their fortunes in the chalk. They fought the hard ground and each other. There were fights and feuds and as many battles in the courtroom as in the field.

Question:         Tell me a little about the men who gambled in the devil’s chalk.

Answer:           Well first, there was Max Williams and his partner Irv Deal. Both had made small fortunes selling and developing commercial property, and suddenly the financial bubble burst in real estate. They were broke, down on their luck, and had to do something, so they turned to oil. Max, in fact, had been a great, razzle-dazzle basketball player at SMU and even put the financial package together to bring the ABA brand of professional basketball to Dallas. Pat Holloway was a brilliant attorney, one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met, who operated drilling funds and decided to play the oil game himself in Giddings. He drilled the most and made the most money but wound up in court when his partner’s widow wanted to take it all away. Jimmy Luecke was a highway patrolman who stopped Holloway for speeding one night and threatened to throw him in jail if he didn’t promise to drill on his family’s land. In time, he became the richest man in Giddings. Jim Dobos was a constable who used his badge to secure leases and sold out for $53 million. He was found dead with a bullet wound in his head, and the argument began: “Was it murder, or suicide?’ And, as I mentioned, the most colorful character of them all was Ray Holifield, who could read the chalk like the back his hand. If an oilman wanted to find oil, he hired Ray Holifield. Otherwise, he was throwing away his money. Clayton Williams came later and tied the field together with his pipeline for natural gas. Until he came along, oilmen were losing money, flaring the flames of their gas into the wind. Clayton almost went broke drilling for oil. He refused to hire Holifield. As he said, “I ran my company like Christopher Columbus. When he left Spain, he didn’t know where he was going. When he got here, he didn’t know where he was. When he got back, he didn’t know where he’d been. And he did it all on borrowed money.”

Question:         What made Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk so interesting for you?

Answer:           So often for historical books I’ve written in the past, I had to rely strictly on research – old letters, old newspapers, books, magazines, andhand-me-down family accounts. In Giddings, I was able to talk to the men who actually drilled and made it happen – the operators, the geologist, the landmen, the drillers, representatives from the service companies, merchants, lawyers, and bankers who saw the complexion of Giddings change from poor to rich in just a few years. There was nothing second-hand about it. I was able to see the boom through their eyes. As Max Williams told me, “We were broke, broke, broke, and one day we were rich.” It happened whether any of them believed it or now.

Question:         Why do you write so much about oil?

Answer:           Might as well. I don’t expect to ever find any.



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