Felty Outdoor Oil Museum
Three generations of the Felty family have kicked historic Burkburnett oil field mud from their boots.
The first, Francis “F.T.” Felty Sr., worked in Wichita County through the revival of a North Texas drilling boom during World War Two. Responding to the war’s steel shortages, he crisscrossed the oil patch in a truck – pulling used casings. It turned into a long career in the oil patch.
When the senior Felty moved from salvaging and began drilling in the 1970s, it was within sight of the historic 1918 Burkburnett discovery well. He had begun collecting old oil field equipment in the 1950s – and a lot of rocks, says his son, Francis “F.T.” Felty Jr., the owner of the F.T. Felty Operating Company.
The senior Felty died in 1981, well after introducing grandchildren to the oil patch, says F.T. Jr. His father also instilled in them the importance of preserving its history, he says. The family office and the “Felty Outdoor Oil Museum” are located just off Interstate 44 about 15 miles north of Wichita Falls.
The Felty leases are where the famous wells of 1918-1919 were drilled and regularly produced 800 to 1,500 barrels of oil a day with three barrels of saltwater.
The oil field’s production has long since reversed. But with careful re-injection of the brine back into the sands below the 1,500-foot producing zone, hundreds of wells each yield a few barrels of oil daily.
F.T. Sr. “put his money back into the ground,” says his son. “He kept at it, and bought a few more little leases around here, which are still in the family.”
Today, three of F.T. Sr.’s grandsons work in the Burkburnett oil patch. A fourth is not far away, working for a bank in Dallas.
Felty Family Museum
Along the gravel road marking the family’s property line northeast of Burkburnett stands a row of antique cable-tool spudders, oil field engines – and a memorial plaque dedicated to family members. The displays flank a small building once home to an oil field worker and now the family’s business office.
Nearby are rows of stacked drilling pipe and assorted equipment still in use. A modern spudder is parked by a large building, built by Felty and his sons, houses more equipment, heavy tools and a machine shop.
A rock and concrete wall-monument painstakingly built over many years by the senior Felty, is part of the landscape near the Felty office and a popular stop for school buses filled with inquisitive students. The museum exhibits machinery from the acme of the oil boom, including truck-propelled spudders used for drilling and cleaning out wells, a steel beam pumping unit, and a band-wheel power source.
The senior Felty started working at the Burkburnett bank while in high school. After becoming a cashier, he decided to go into the oil patch. F.T. Sr. began as a lease man for others, but eventually started his own business in casing-pulling.
In 1967, he bought several leases north of town, in the heart of the historic oil field, and started production. At the time, the leases used old band wheels with rods lines, powered by a single engine and without electricity.
F.T. Jr. maintains his father’s outdoor oil museum.
“He wanted a place where the old-timers could get out and walk around, reach out and touch equipment and bring back real memories,” F.T. says.
“We have a lot of people who stop during the summer; the wives will stay in their air-conditioned cars, but the husbands will get out and walk up and down just to see these old relics from their oilfield days,” he adds.
The Burkburnett Chamber of Commerce hosts a “Tales and Trails” tour with the museum among the stops.
“They come in by the busload of children for a 20-minute talk about the field’s history,” says F.T. “That rock and cement wall that dad put together over many years tells history from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The younger kids like it.”
Hollywood’s “Boom Town”
The movie “Boom Town” remains among the earliest examples of Hollywood’s vision of life in an oil town. The 1940 MGM feature was adapted from an August 1939 Cosmopolitan magazine article, “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett.”
The hit movie starred Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. It was nominated for two Academy Awards.
At the time of the July 29, 1918, Burkburnett discovery well, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout working with his father William Gable in an oil field outside Bigheart, Oklahoma.
In 1922, Gable would collect an inheritance from his grandfather and leave the Oklahoma oil field for good. Gable’s father is reported to have said, “I told the stubborn mule if he left me this time, he need never come back.”
Burkburnett was famous among North Texan oilmen much earlier than “Boom Town.” The oil strike occurred on S.L. Fowler’s farm, on the Red River town founded in 1907 and named by President Theodore Roosevelt, who once hunted wolf nearby with rancher Burk Burnett.
Oil had been discovered nearby as early as 1912, but it was the 1918 Fowler discovery well that brought thousands to the town – with 200 wells completed in the following three months. By late 1918, Burkburnett wells were producing 7,500 barrels per day.
About 20,000 people flowed into the region. Twenty trains ran daily between Burkburnett and Wichita Falls.
Eventually, of course, the oil boom died out. Affected by the Great Depression, Burkburnett’s population declined during the 1930s and 1940s.
By the time of the Cosmopolitan article in 1939, the town had a population of less than 3,500.
Burkburnett’s population today exceeds 10,000, thanks to agriculture, continued production from its historic oil field. Among Burkburnett’s tourist attractions are the Bluebonnet Festival in April – and the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.
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