“Boom Town” of Burkburnett
A wildcat well comes in on S. L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on July 29, 1918. The subsequent drilling boom along the Red River will make Burkburnett famous – two decades before “Boom Town,” the 1940 motion picture it inspires.
At the time of the Fowler No. 1 well’s discovery, future moviestar Clark Gable is a teenage roustabout in an Oklahoma oilfield. The well is completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, founded in 1907 — and named by President Theodore Roosevelt, who two years earlier hunted wolf along the Red River with rancher Burk Burnett.
Although Wichita County had been producing oil since 1912 (thanks to a shallow water well west of town) Fowler’s decision to drill a well on his farm — an attempt called “Fowler’s Folly” by some — will bring an oil boom to Wichita County. Fifty-six drilling rigs are at work just three weeks after his oil strike at 1,734 feet deep. Six months later, Burkburnett’s population has grown from 1,000 to 8,000. A line of derricks two-miles long greets visitors.
The Burkburnett oilfield joins earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that will make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production.
By the end of 1918, Burkburnett oil wells are producing 7,500 barrels per day. By June 1919, there are more than 850 producing wells in “the world’s wonder oilfield.”
Nineteen local refineries are soon processing the crude oil. The town’s unpaved streets are lined with newly formed stock offices, brokerage houses, and autos stuck in the mud.
Twenty trains are running daily between Burkburnett and nearby Wichita Falls. Yet another highly productive Wichita County oilfield is then discovered, bringing more prosperity for North Texas.
But eventually, the oil boom dies out. Affected by the Great Depression, Burkburnett’s population declines during the 1930s. By 1939, the town has a population of less than 3,500. At the same time, the movie “Boom Town” is adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine article, “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett.”
The 1940 MGM feature stars Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. It is nominated for two Academy Awards.
At the time of the 1918 Burkburnett discovery well, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout working with his father William Gable, a service contractor, in an oilfield outside Bigheart, Oklahoma. In 1922, Gable would collect an inheritance from his grandfather and leave working in the Oklahoma oil patch for good.
Clark Gable’s father is reported to have said, “I told the stubborn mule if he left me this time, he need never come back.”
Today, Burkburnett’s population exceeds 10,000, thanks to agriculture, continued production from its historic oilfield – and the 1941 establishment of nearby Sheppard Air Force Base. Among Burkburnett’s tourist attractions are the Bluebonnet Festival in April – and the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.
A footnote of the North Texas oil boom is the “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” in Wichita Falls. Just 40 feet tall with 118 square feet per floor, it has survived since 1919.
The building is a monument of the boom town era – and a Philadelphia con man who convinced oilmen (who were desperate for office space) to approve fraudulent blueprints.
J. D. McMahon disappeared after collecting $200,000 and completing his promised “skyscraper.” The fine print his investors overlooked noted a scale in inches - not feet.
“Apparently too busy to keep an eye on construction, investors ultimately found themselves owners of a building that looked more like an elevator shaft than high-rise office space,” notes Carlton Stowers, author of “Legend of the World’s Littlest Skyscraper.”
“The completed building’s outside dimensions were a closet-sized 11 feet by 19 feet. Stairwells that led to the upstairs floors occupied 25 percent of the interior,” Stower adds. “Dallas and Houston may have sparkling skyscrapers so tall that they require oxygen in the penthouses, but has Ripley’s Believe It or Not ever paid them attention?”
The brick building has become a Wichita Falls landmark. Today it attracts oil-patch knowledgeable tourists. The city also is headquarters for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
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