Call them detectives, night riders, or scouts. They help separate oil well fact from fiction.
In the hard winter of 1888, 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen, succumbed to pneumonia — contracted while in the field investigating production data from a Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company well at Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. McMullen, publisher of the Bradford “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a journalist and oilfield detective.
Former Marland Oil executive confounds geologists, begins long career as independent producer.
A Fort Worth wildcatter named W.A. “Monty” Moncrief drilled a well in East Texas in January 1931 that revealed the true extent of an oilfield discovered three months earlier.
As the Great Depression worsened and East Texas farmers struggled to survive, a third wildcat well miles from the earlier discoveries ultimately revealed a massive oilfield, which was the largest in the lower-48 states.
On January 26, 1931, in Gregg County, Fort Worth independent oilman W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well. The well produced 320 barrels of oil per hour (7,680 barrels a day) from a depth of 3,587 feet.
Moncrief, who had worked for Marland Oil Company in Fort Worth after returning from World War I, drilled in an area few geologists thought petroleum production a possibility. He and fellow oil operators John Ferrell and Eddie Showers thought otherwise.
Moncrief’s well was 25 miles north of Rusk County’s already famous October 1930 Daisy Bradford No. 3 well drilled by Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. It was 15 miles north of the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well drilled near Kilgore three days after Christmas.
At first, the great distance between these “wildcat” discoveries convinced geologists, petroleum engineers (and experts at the large oil companies) that the wildcat wells were small, separate oilfields. They were wrong.
Three Wells, One Giant Oilfield
However, to the delight of other independent producers and many small, struggling farmers, Moncrief’s Lathrop discovery showed that the three wells were part of a massive oil-producing field — the largest ever at the time. As a drilling boom exploded, further development revealed the 130,000-acre East Texas oilfield stretching 42 miles long and four to eight miles wide.
A circa 1960 photograph of W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and his son “Tex” in Fort Worth’s Moncrief Building.
The region’s unique history is exhibited at the East Texas Oil Museum, which opened in 1980. Founding director Joe White, who retired in 2014, notes museum at Kilgore College “houses the authentic recreation of oil discovery and production in the early 1930s in the largest oilfield inside U.S. boundaries.”
After more than half a century of major discoveries, William Alvin “Monty” Moncrief died in 1986. His legacy extends beyond his good fortune in East Texas. The family exploration business established by “Monty” Moncrief in 1929 was later led led by sons W. A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. and C. B. “Charlie” Moncrief. According to Forbes magazine, in January 2010, “Tex” Moncrief Jr. — at age 94 — made “perhaps the biggest find of his life” by discovering an offshore field containing about six trillion cubic feet of gas.
The 130,000-acre East Texas oilfield became the largest in the contiguous United States in 1930.
Hospitals in communities near the senior Moncrief’s nationwide discoveries, including a giant oilfield in Jay, Florida, revealed in 1970, and another in Louisiana, have benefited from his drilling acumen. Moncrief and his wife established the William A. and Elizabeth B. Moncrief Foundation and the Moncrief Radiation Center in Fort Worth, as well as the Moncrief Annex of the All Saints hospital. Buildings were erected in their honor at Texas Christian University, All Saints School, and Fort Worth Country Day School.
Dr. Daniel Podolsky in 2013 presented W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. with a framed image of the new Moncrief Cancer Institute at the Fort Worth facility’s dedication ceremony.
Supported throughout the 1960s and 1970s by the Moncrief family, Fort Worth’s original Cancer Center, known as the Radiation Center, was founded in 1958 as one of the nation’s first community radiation facilities. A 1979 donation of $2.5 million by Mr. and Mrs. Moncrief led to another major expansion. In November 2013, a new $22 million Moncrief Cancer Institute was dedicated during a ceremony attended by W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. It’s located on a 3.4-acre site at 400 W. Magnolia Ave.”
One man’s vision for a place that would make life better for cancer survivors is now a reality in Fort Worth,” noted one reporter at the dedication of the facility.
Born in Sulphur Springs, Texas, on August 25, 1895, Moncrief grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, where his family moved when he was five. Checotah was the town where Moncrief attended high school, taking typing and shorthand – and excelling to the point that he became a court reporter in Eufaula, Oklahoma.
Small investments from hopeful Texas farmers will bring historic results – and make Kilgore, Longview and Tyler boom towns during the Great Depression. Kilgore today celebrates its petroleum heritage.
“Determined to get an education, he saved $150 which was enough money to enroll at the University of Oklahoma at Norman,” a company historian notes. “To continue covering expenses, he worked in the registrar’s office. He became ‘Monty’ Moncrief when he was initiated into the Sigma Chi fraternity,” he adds. World War I interrupted Moncrief’s college education and like many others, he volunteered. He joined the U.S. Cavalry and was sent to officer training camp in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Moncried met, and six months later married, Mary Elizabeth Bright on May 28, 1918.
Although sent to France, Moncrief saw no combat. The Armistice was signed before his battalion got to the front. After the war, Moncrief returned to Oklahoma where he found a job with Marland Oil Company, first in its accounting department and later in its land office. When Marland opened offices in Fort Worth in the late 1920s, Moncrief was promoted to vice president for the new division. He struck out on his own as an independent in 1929.
Moncrief soon teamed up with independent oilmen John Ferrell and Eddie Showers. They bought leases where they ultimately drilled the F.K. Lathrop No. 1 well, which turned out to be the northernmost extension of the giant East Texas field.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Moncrief makes East Texas History.” Authors: B.A. and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/moncrief-oil. Last Updated: January 24, 2021. Original Published Date: January 25, 2015.
Discovery of the giant Texas oilfield in 1901 came as autos brought rising demand for gasoline.
The January 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas revealed the Spindletop oilfield, which would produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.
Although the great Galveston hurricane of 1899 (still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history) brought misery to much of southeastern Texas, as the 20th century dawned, an oil discovery three miles south of Beaumont launched the modern oil and gas industry.
Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas, tells the story of a 1901 oil discovery that made America a world power.
“Dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher,’ the oil discovery on Spindletop Hill changed the economy of Texas and helped to usher in the petroleum age,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. Drilled by Curt Hamill, Capt. Anthony Lucas, and two experienced Pennsylvania oilmen, the well erupted oil for nine days before it could be brought under control with the technology of the time. The museum at Lamar University today re-creates the historic gusher using water for about two minutes.
The Beaumont museum tells the story of the oil-producing salt dome three miles south that created an oil boom greatly exceeding America’s first oil discovery in 1859 in Pennsylvania.
Just as consumer demand for kerosene for lamps was declining in favor of electricity, Americans would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product: gasoline. Within a few decades, new oil companies will pump gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country. (more…)
Oil discoveries at El Dorado and Smackover brought 1920s drilling booms.
Wildcat wells created two Arkansas oil and natural gas boom towns, boosted the young career of H.L. Hunt, and launched the state’s petroleum industry.
The first Arkansas well that yielded “sufficient quantities of oil” was the Hunter No. 1 of April 16, 1920, in Ouachita County, according to the Arkansas Geological Survey. Natural gas was discovered a few days later by Constantine Oil and Refining Company north of the present-day El Dorado field in Union County. But it was January 1921 well in the same field that marked the true beginning of commercial oil production in Arkansas.
Surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, seven miles north of El Dorado – in equally historic Smackover – exhibits the state’s petroleum history.
When the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil in 1921, it catapulted the population of nearby El Dorado, Arkansas, from 4,000 to 25,000. The discovery, 15 miles north of the Louisiana border, was the state’s first commercial oil well.
“Twenty-two trains a day were soon running in and out of El Dorado,” noted the Arkansas Gazette. An excited state legislature announced plans for a special railway excursion for lawmakers to visit the oil well in Union County. Meanwhile, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt arrived from Texas with $50. He joined the crowd of lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were being made and lost.
H.L. Hunt, who had borrowed the $50, got his start as an independent oil and natural gas producer in El Dorado. Many people said it was his expertise at the poker table that earned him enough to purchase a one-half acre parcel lease. He drilled his Hunt-Pickering No. 1 well, which at first produced some oil, but ultimately was not profitable.
Hunt persevered and in four years had acquired substantial El Dorado and Smackover oilfield holdings. By 1925, he was a successful 36-year-old oilman with wife Lyda and three young children living comfortably in a fine three-story El Dorado home. He will add to his oil patch successes a decade later in East Texas (see East Texas Oilfield Discovery).
Giant Oilfield at El Dorado
Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick was plainly visible from the town, according to historians A.R. and R.B. Buckalew. They write that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity, but did not produce oil in commercial quantities. There was no market for natural gas at the time, the authors explained in their 1974 book, The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.
The Garrett Hotel, where H.L. Hunt checked in with 50 borrowed dollars – and launched his career as a successful independent producer.
Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”
The authors added, “among those who gambled their savings with Busey at this time were Wong Hing, also called Charles Louis, a Chinese laundry man, and Ike Felsenthal, whose family had created a community in southeast Union County in earlier years.”
With no oil production nearby, investing in the “wildcat” well was a leap of faith. Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, contributed the hefty sum of $1,000. On January 10, 1921, the well had been drilled to 2,233 feet and reached the Nacatoch Sand. A small crowd of onlookers and the drilling crew after moving a safe distance away watched and listened.
“The spectators, among them Dr. Busey, watched with an air of expectancy,” noted the historians. “Drilling had ceased and bailing operations had begun to try to bring in the well. At about 4:30 p.m., as the bailer was being lifted from its sixth trip into the deep hole, a rumble from deep in the well was heard.”
The rumbling grew in intensity, “shaking the derrick and the very ground on which it stood as if an earthquake were passing,” the authors report. “Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” they added.
The gusher blows through the derrick and “bursts into a black mushroom” cloud against the January sky. The Busey No. 1 well produced 15,000,000 to 35,000,000 cubic feet of gas and from 3,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil and water a day.
Petroleum brings Prosperity
Thanks to the El Dorado discovery, the first Arkansas petroleum boom was on. By 1922, there were 900 producing wells in the state.
Civic leaders raised funds to preserve El Dorado’s historic downtown – and add an Oil Heritage Park at 101 East Main Street.
“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions,” notes the Union County Sheriff’s Office. “Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”
The 68-square-mile field will lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. “It was a scene never again to be equaled in El Dorado’s history, nor would the town and its people ever be the same again,” the authors conclude. “Union County’s dream of oil had come true.”
In 2002, El Dorado gathered 40 local artists to paint 55 oil drums donated by the local Murphy Oil Company. Preserving the town’s historic assets, including boom-era buildings, remains a major goal of the local group, Main Street El Dorado, which was the “2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner” of the National Trust Main Street Center.
Second Oil Boom: The Smackover Discovery
Prior to the January 1921 El Dorado discovery, the region’s economy relied almost exclusively on the cotton and the timber industries “that thrived in the vast virgin forests of southern Arkansas.”
Incorporated in 1922, Smackover, Arkansas, had been a small agricultural and sawmill community. Today, the town celebrates its petroleum heritage with the annual “Oil Town Festival” in June.
Six months after the Busey-Armgstrong No. 1, another giant oilfield discovery 12 miles north will bring national attention – and lead to the incorporation of Smackover. A small agricultural and sawmill community with a population of 131, Smackover had been settled by French fur trappers in 1844. They called the area “Sumac-Couvert”, meaning covered with sumac or shumate bushes.
According to historian Don Lambert, by 1908 Sidney Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town. He believed that oil lay beneath the surface. “On July 1, 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well (Richardson No. 1) produced a gusher from a depth of 2,066 feet,” Lambert reports. “Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled, with a success rate of ninety-two percent. The little town had increased from a mere ninety to 25,000 and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention.”
The oil-producing area of the Smackover field covered more than 25,000 acres. By 1925, it had become the largest-producing oil site in the world. The field will produce 583 million barrels of oil by 2001.
Roughnecks photographed following the July 1, 1922, discovery of the Smackover (Richardson) field in Union County. Courtesy of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives.
Visit the Arkansas Natural Resources Museum in Smackover – the heart of the Smackover field. The museum includes a five-acre Oilfield Park with operating examples of oil producing technologies used in south Arkansas oilfields from the 1920s to today.
The Fayetteville Shale brought more drilling to Arkansas.
About one-third of Arkansas’ 75 counties produce oil natural gas. As of 2010, more than 40,800 wells have been drilled since 1921’s Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well in Union County.
According to geologists, the Fayetteville Shale, a 50-mile-wide formation across central Arkansas, promises large quantities of natural gas – and a new petroleum boom for the state. But the unconventional natural gas reservoir requires hydraulic fracturing. Unlike traditional fields containing hydrocarbons in porous rock formations, shale holds natural gas in a fine-grained rock or “tight sands.” Until recently, most shale formations were not considered profitable areas for production.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Arkansas Oil Wells.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/arkansas-oil-and-gas-boom-towns. Last Updated: January 3, 2021. Original Published Date: April 21, 2013.
It took awhile, but the 1957 well drilled on Mrs. Houseknecht’s dairy farm found a giant oilfield.
In early January 1957, an exploratory well drilled on and off for almost two years revealed a giant oilfield in southern Michigan. The discovery at “Rattlesnake Gulch” on the dairy farm of Ferne Houseknecht discovered a prolific petroleum basin that extended 29 miles.
The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield is the stuff of dreams, according to Michigan historian and author Jack R. Westbrook. The state’s first oilfield, the Saginaw field, was found in 1925, but it would be years before Mrs. Houseknecht historic discovery arrived. (more…)
Seeking a water well in 1894, Corsicana discovered an oilfield.
A contractor hired by the town of Corsicana to drill a water well on 12th Street found oil instead, creating a drilling frenzy seven years before a more famous discovery at Spindletop Hill, 230 miles southeast.
Corsican’s first oil well produced less than three barrels of oil a day, but it quickly transformed the sleepy agricultural town into a petroleum and industrial center. The discovery launched industries, including service companies and manufacturers of the newly invented rotary drilling rig.
The first Texas oil boom arrived in the summer of 1894 when the Corsicana oilfield is discovered by a drilling contractor hired by the city to find water. Residents annually celebrate the 1894 discovery with a Derrick Day Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.
Corsicana local historians consider the 1894 discovery well, drilled on South 12th Street, the first significant commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi (Kansans claim the same distinction for an 1892 Neodesha oil well).
The American Well and Prospecting Company (from Kansas) made the oil strike on June 9, 1894, at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council — angry and still wanting water for its growing community 55 miles south of Dallas – paid only half of the $1,000 fee. (more…)