Boom Town Burkburnett
A 1918 oil discovery on a small farm along the Red River launched another North Texas drilling boom. Burkburnett and its “World’s Wonder Oilfield” would inspire a 1940 Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable, who at the time was a teenager working in nearby Oklahoma oilfields.
A wildcat well found oil on S.L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on July 29, 1918. The subsequent drilling boom along the Red River soon made Burkburnett world famous two decades before “Boom Town,” the 1940 Hollywood movie it inspired.
The Fowler No. 1 well was completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, which had founded in 1907. The town (once called Nesterville) had been renamed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had hunted wolf along the Red River with local rancher Burk Burnett.
Although Wichita County had been producing oil since 1912 (thanks to a shallow water well discovery west of town) Fowler’s decision to drill a well on his farm – an attempt called “Fowler’s Folly” by some – brought an oil boom to Wichita County.
Fifty-six drilling rigs were at work just three weeks after his oil strike at 1,734 feet deep. Six months later, Burkburnett’s population had grown from 1,000 to 8,000. A line of derricks two-miles long greeted visitors.
The Burkburnett oilfield joined earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that helped make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production. See Pump Jack Capital of Texas.
By the end of 1918, Burkburnett oil wells were producing 7,500 barrels per day. By June 1919, there were more than 850 producing wells in “the world’s wonder oilfield.”
Nineteen local refineries were soon processing the crude oil. The town’s unpaved streets were lined with newly formed stock offices, brokerage houses, and autos stuck in the mud.
Twenty trains ran daily between Burkburnett and nearby Wichita Falls. Yet another highly productive Wichita County oilfield was then discovered, bringing more prosperity for North Texas.
But eventually, the oil boom died out. Affected by the Great Depression, Burkburnett’s population declined during the 1930s.
By 1939, the town had a population of less than 3,500. At the same time, the movie “Boom Town” was adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine article, “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett.”
The 1940 MGM feature starred Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. It was 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 was 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 says. “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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