Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 4
December, 1939

By Gerald Forbes

Page 393

Characteristic of the twentieth century history and rapid peopling of the southwestern part of the United States has been the oil boom town. It has been an important factor in the sociological, economic, industrial, and political development of the six states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico. The era of the boom oil town began with the turn of the century and continued with mechanization of industry and the manufacture of the internal combustion engine. Just as the production of petroleum in the great Mid-Continent Field resulted in the rapid building of towns from Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, so did the automobile manufacturers of Michigan concurrently sell their products from Maine to California.1 The features and resulting problems of the oil boom towns have been generally the same throughout the MidContinent Field.

The development of the petroleum producing industry may be conveniently divided into five different phases, which were virtually the same in all parts of the Mid-Continent Field. The first phase, or period, was, of course, that of discovery in which one well, or possibly half a dozen, would show clearly the existence of a vauable deposit of petroleum. The period of leasing the land, surrounding the discovery well, formed the second phase of the development. The next two stages of the development, the drilling of the wells that formed the oil pool and the building of the town or towns, were thoroughly interlocked and interdependent. The final phase of the cycle arrived when the drilling was virtually concluded, and the operations of the pool were those of extracting the petroleum from the wells.

In the Mid-Continent Field, petroleum has been discovered in areas that have resulted in two materially different types of development. When oil has been discovered in an area of small land holding's, as in the case of the Glenn Pool in the Creek Nation of the Indian Territory or the Spindle-Top Pool in Texas, both at the beginning of the century, or the East Texas Pool two decades later,2

Page 394

the development was thoroughly different from that which took place in the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma or the Yates ranch in West Texas.3 Fundamentally the difference was to be found in the size of the leases. The large leases of the areas of big land holdings tended to obviate competitive drilling, which in turn reduced or prevented the growth of oil towns.

The physical conditions at the beginning of the century that produced the most oil boom towns included many small leases and in addition oil-bearing sandstones only a few hundred feet below the surface of the earth.4 The small leases stimulated drilling, because petroleum would not observe property lines, and the owner of one well might extract oil from the subsurface of his nearby neighbor. The result was that the neighbor, for the preservation of his own petroleum, was forced to drill an offsetting well on the opposite side of the line. Market conditions had little effect on this type of drilling. Certainly market condition played no part in the Federal regulations that governed the production of oil on Indian lands during the early years of the century, for those rules required drilling within six months or a year to validate the contracts.5

Closely following the leasing, came the period of drilling, which brought with it the town building phase.6 Drilling crews consisted of about half a dozen men, most of whom were young and with educations generally no more than mediocre. They were attracted to the new oil pool by the wages which varied from four dollars a day upward.7 In addition to the drilling crews there were numerous teamsters and their assistants. A large and rapidly drilled pool such as Cushing in Oklahoma or the East Texas near Tyler, Texas, might attract from fifty to one hundred thousand persons to an area that previously had been rather sparsely populated.8

Page 395

The largest population shifts occurred under such conditions as were found in the East Texas and the Healdton Pool in Oklahoma. There the leases were relatively small and the petroleum was found comparatively near the surface, factors which permitted men with limited capital to own and operate producing properties. The more competitive the drilling became, the larger the transient population of labor was certain to become.9 There were, of course, highly productive areas which did not result in the development of boom town conditions, generally because of the operation of one or both of the following factors. If the drilling were deep, and therefore expensive, the small operators were automatically eliminated, and the large companies controlled their production in accord with the national market conditions. The Oklahoma City Pool, with its oil found at about 6400 feet, was an example of deep drilling.10 The other situation which has prevented the development of boom town conditions was exemplified by the Texon Pool in West Texas, where the entire petroleum deposit was held in one big lease by a single company which built and owned a little town for the exclusive accommodation of its employees.11

The oil boom towns of Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, were built chiefly where neither of the foregoing conditions existed. The discovery and development of an oil pool in a region of relatively small farms was certain to change the complexion and character of the entire countryside. The first easily notiecable change was the arrival of the drilling crews, many young men without the stabilizing influences of family and property responsibilities. These young men received very good wages, and despite the fact that they worked strenuously from eight to twelve hours a day, they were vigorous enough to seek recreation and entertainment when not on duty. The farmers of the region were attracted from their fields and crops by the high wages offered by the oil companies. Those farmers who owned teams were particularly in demand for freighting supplies to the new pool. Thus in the early stages of the oil pool development the population of the countryside was augumented by a great influx of irresponsible young men, and the agricultural interests of the community were deserted or permitted to decline rapidly.12

Page 396

The next apparent alteration in the appearance of the region was the development of rooming and boarding accommodations. The first persons to enter this division of the life of the oil pool were the wives and daughters of the farmers, but their efforts quickly became inadequate. Men who could use hammers and saws rapidly nailed cheap buildings together, along the country road near the anticipated center of the oil pool.13 Into these cheap buildings moved restauranteurs, open day and night, with two staffs, grocers, and men whose chief claim to the title "hostlers" rested in the control of numerous beds and cots. A "hotel" might be one large room crowded with beds and cots that were rented by the night or week to those fortunate men who applied first. It was not unknown for a condition of scarcity to force men to spend the night walking about or sleeping exhausted on the ground.14

Once begun the boom town grew rapidly, so rapidly that in two or three months it might contain an urban population of three to five thousand and even boast a weekly newspaper.15 By that time the town likely consisted of one street (previously a country street) which for half a mile was lined on both sides by cheap, one-story, wooden buildings that helf most types of businesses. There would be clothing stores capable of fitting men out in the latest styles of shirts, ties, suits, and shoes, and equally prepared to dress them in strong and durable work clothing—especially the favored boots, corduroy suits, and flannet shirts. There were little jewelry shops, equipped to sell or repair watches and to retail rings and gems, as well as to loan money on personal possessions. There were feed stores to provide food for the horses and mules, and filling stations and garages to care for the trucks and automobiles, which became important in the second and third decades of the century.16

By the third or fourth month following the discovery of the pool, the establishments that provided entertainment for the workers for the workers of the oil companies occupied about half of the business section of the boom town. There were cheap (in quality, not price) shows that were certain to be melodramatic, and often of a type that prevented the married men from taking their wives. Even a small town might boast of its "opera house."17 Dance halls abounded, and there the young oil field worker's desire for feminine society

Page 397

could be purchased. The dance halls were very popular, day and night, for as the drilling crews worked in shifts there were consequently from one-half to two-thirds of the men at leisure all the time. Prostitutes, of course, were a very common element in the society of a boom oil area. Sections of some of the boom oil towns were devoted almost exclusively to the entertainment of the well-paid laborers, this was especially true of Kiefer, which was a development of the Glenn Pool in the Indian Territory, 1905-1907. The gay section of Kiefer was known as the "Bowery," and there could be found every known method or device for separating a man and his money.18

Following the Volstead Act another element became more common in the boom oil towns in the form of the bootlegger and his "joint." It was this element that gave color and disrepute to the boom oil towns, for in the wake of the bootlegger came the outlaw, the murderer, and the racketeer. Probably Ragtown in the Healdton Field or "Bishop Alley," the vice district of Seminole, Oklahoma, in 1929 showed conditions at their worst.19 A young oil field worker might commit an occasional crime in a fit of temper or under the influence of liquor as he was removed from the restraint of family and acquaintances. He was generally law abiding, although he usually was foolish enough near the tenth of each month when the oil companies paid employees to carry all his wages in his pocket—thus unintentionally encouraging highwaymen.20 The law-violating element was small but in many cases desperate. There were several cases in which sheriffs and Texas Rangers became noted for their fearless and daring conflict with the outlaws.21

One of the last businesses to enter the boom oil town was the bank, probably because of the nature of the institution. Despite the fact that the first day's deposits might approach fifty thousand dollars, bankers were hesitant about entering boom oil towns. The oil booms of the Southwest caused the failure of hundreds of banks, because the petroleum industry required a type of financing with which the bankers were not familiar. Before the coming of the oil industry, most of the bank loans were agricultural. But with

Page 398

the discovery of a significant oil pool hundreds of farmers abandoned their crops for the good wages of the oil industry, subsequently invalidating their agricultural mortgages. The bankers turned to the financing of the oil industry, with the speculative risks of which they were not familiar, and the failure of a few such ventures was sufficient to bankrupt a small bank. Generally a bank would not enter business in a boom oil town unless the size of the pool indicated that the town would be relatively permanent—as in the case of Drumright, Oklahoma, a product of the Cushing Pool.22

Among the early arrivals at the boom oil town there always were a few wives with their children, and about them and their hopes for the well-being of their offspring were developed belatedly two valuable social institutions—churches and schools. Workers from nearby towns assisted in the organization of the initial congregations, which held their first services in lumber yards or store buildings. If the size of the oil pool warranted it, land was acquired, and by subscriptions and volunteer labor churches were erected.23 The development of the schools was a slower process, for in the beginning the children either attended the already existing rural schools or were untrained. Occasionally a mother who had been a teacher before her marriage would open a small tuition school at home for her own and neighboring children, and thus start a city school system.24 This same stabilizing element also made efforts to better the moral conditions.25

Whether the town ever passed from an aggregation of wooden shacks to a little city of stone buildings, paving, and shrubbery shrouded residences depended entirely on the size and importance of the oil pool from which it sprang. Unless the oil pool were of considerable size and productivity, most of the population would leave the locality when the drilling of new wells ceased. A relatively small number of men were required to operate the production of an oil pool, once the wells had been drilled and were flowing by their own pressure or being pumped. The operation of the producing pool was left in the hands of the married men, who found moving undesirably expensive. If, as was the case in most of the pools, the

Page 399

deposit was not extensive, the little boom town was as rapidly deserted as it had been populated. There were several pools, however—Glenn and Cushing in Oklahoma may be cited as examples—of such national importance in the oil industry that the resulting towns attained relative permanence. It took Kiefer in the Glenn Pool only a few years to become a ghost of its former self—and Kiefer possessed a high school with marble stairs. Drumright, the boom product of the much greater Cushing Pool, was a town of some consequence a quarter of a century after its boom construction. Other Oklahoma towns like Earlsboro, taking advantage of a decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1938, have declared themselves bankrupt. Earlsboro eased itself of its debt of $169,000.26

The most significant and outstanding oil boom town of the Southwest, of course, is Tulsa, which when the century began was a little Creek Indian trading center of about one thousand population.27 Thirty years later it contained about one hundred and fifty thousand cosmopolitan residents, most of whom were directly or indirectly dependent on the oil industry. Tulsa was situated near both the great Glenn and Cushing Pools, and within a radius of one hundred miles there were several hundred small pools.28 One of the important early factors in the steady development of Tulsa was the construction of a modern hotel, an institution that attracted the wealthier operators and caused them to make that city the headquarters for their activities in all directions. With the development of the oil industry there came to Tulsa a consequent industrial construction, which was accompanied by the establishment of oil well supply houses and machine shops. There followed the laying of pipe lines and the construction and operation of refineries. Tulsa residents boasted that the city contained more millionaires than any city of comparable size in the world. Subscription campaigns became common there, and funds were raised for many civic purposes. Many palatial residences were constructed, and oil producers commuted by plane from their homes to their leases in Lea County, New Mexico, or the Texas Panhandle. Tulsa became the most permanent of the Southwestern oil boom towns, largely because it was not the product of a single pool of petroleum.29

Page 400

The development of the oil boom towns of the Southwest has been cyclical in nature, with the towns first rising during the period of rapid driling and then receding as the drilling of the wells passed its peak. The exploitation of the petroleum caused a population shift that peopled several states rapidly, bringing the consequent changes in life and culture that in other areas required several times as long. There occurred a merging of the cultures of the older parts of the United States with the cultures of pioneers and Indians in the Mid-Continent Field. The life of the Southwest took from the oil boom towns a speculative daring that can only be attributed to the reckless prospect of becoming suddenly rich which the oil pools offered.30

Return to top

Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site