In the oilfield’s present day context of wrenching anxiety over the policies of the Biden administration, historians find the example of the old-time West Texas wildcatters inspiring because the industry’s present day is founded on their indomitable spirit.
Historians Pat McDaniel and Kathy Shannon say that with little but determination and rudimentary technology, the wildcatters sometimes hit 10 dry holes in a row before finally making the big strike.
“Those days of the wildcatters from west of Abilene made this part of the world significant in the oil and gas industry,” said McDaniel, director of the Haley Memorial Library and J. Evetts Haley History Center in Midland. “C.T. McLaughlin brought in numerous wells on his Diamond M Ranch at Snyder and George H.W. Bush, Earle Craig, Toby Hilliard, Pomeroy Smith and Ed Leede brought the eastern cultural influence in the early 1960s.
“O.C. ‘Kip’ Harper was one of the first oil scouts who literally camped out while studying surface geology. Clayton Williams was a wildcatter in the vein of the old-time wildcatters. He made the Gataga No. 2 gas strike in 1975 in Loving County near Mentone, but then the bankers and accountants got ahold of him and he had to think about how to sustain the growth.
“It was hit and miss. They knew after they had drilled some wells and got core samples that there was a sedimentary basin. They didn’t have the benefits of seismic information, but they used surface geology to start and got lucky in the 1950s and hit the Spraberry Field, which was pretty shallow.”
McDaniel said the wildcatters “would hit maybe one in 10, but they never started a project without believing that they would make a well.
“The odds were stacked against them,” he said. “If they found a field, they developed inside it and then stepped out from where the edges of it were. In those days, a well didn’t pay out very quickly. Midland and Odessa didn’t have much going for them at all till the post-World War II ‘50s, when they started developing these oil fields and giving the GIs who stayed here jobs. The eastern families of wealth sent their children or relatives out here to diversify their investments.
“They were drilling with rotary bits right after rotary bits were invented in 1933. Now they have all this information from downhole technology guided by GPS. It took a bunch of people, including landmen, geologists and brokers, to make it come together and work.”
McDaniel said other important early day figures were William M. Fuller, the ranching Cogdell family, Fred Hogan, who built the Hogan Building in 1928 and provided much-needed office space where the Yucca Theater is now in downtown Midland, and Clarence Scharbauer, who built the Scharbauer Hotel in ‘28, “where lots of oil and cow deals were made.
“Then Jack Wilkinson Sr. built numerous high-rise buildings to give those oil companies office space,” he said. “The key elements that were needed to make it work were office space, transportation and money. Oil is a commodity subject to the vagaries of the markets, but the wildcatters were not afraid to take risks and they were smart enough to do their homework and make a go of it.
“It took a special kind of personality to see the opportunities and then decide to step out and take their risks, seize those opportunities.”
After the 1983 failure of Midland’s First National Bank in the midst of the worst oilfield slump that the Basin ever had, McDaniel said, most of the major oil companies fled in 1986 when oil prices fell below $10 a barrel. “A lot of people thought that was the end of this part of the world, but all it did was open up opportunities for independent producers like Joe Parsley and his partner Howard Parker,” he said, adding that Parker & Parsley Petroleum merged with Mesa Inc. in 1997 to form Pioneer Natural Resources.
“In the early years of oil exploration, there developed a co-dependent relationship between the rancher and the oilman. The rancher held the key to the development of the minerals underneath his surface and the oilman held the key to wealth produced by the development of those minerals.
“At times there were strained relationships between the two, but in the end they all benefitted.”
Shannon, executive director of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, said Sid Richardson, Mack Chase, the John E. Mabee family and the Martin Yates family in Eastern New Mexico also figure heavily into the story. “They had a never-give-up attitude,” Shannon said.
“They kept trimming and drew something out of nothing. The early geologists thought the land had reserves of oil. It was hard to find it, but they did after O.C. Harper’s maps gave them a better idea of where to drill.
“Sid Richardson didn’t know how many dry holes he drilled before he hit his first well.”
Shannon said the beginning of the Basin as a worldwide oil and gas hub was investor Frank Pickrell’s and driller Carl Cromwell’s 1922 initiative near Big Lake in Reagan County to form the Texon Oil & Land Co. and spend 646 days drilling the Santa Rita No. 1 well, named for “the Saint of Impossible Causes” and making only 4.7 feet of daily progress finally to hit dolomitic sands and bring up natural gas bubbles just before the oil came blowing out from 3,050 feet.
“The early oil wells were very shallow and when they first learned how to drill to 10,000 and 12,000 feet, the Basin became a natural gas field, not so much oil,” she said. “The Santa Rita set it in motion and helped establish it as an oilfield. Fracturing shale brought it back to oil, which they had known was there. They just couldn’t get it out.”
Shannon said another crucial development was the construction by 1950 of 15,000 miles of pipelines to move the oil and gas to markets on the Gulf Coast. “George Mitchell figured out how to frac and the Jim Henry group perfected it with slick or soapy water in the early 2000s,” she said.