Three days after Christmas in 1930, a major oil discovery on the farm of the widow Lou Della Crim revealed the extent of the mighty East Texas oilfield.

lou della crim

“Mrs. Lou Della Crim sits on the porch of her house and contemplates the three producing wells in her front yard,” notes the caption of this undated photograph about the wells that followed the historic 1930 discovery on her farm. Image courtesy Calib Pirtle/Neal Campbell.

lou della crim

Malcolm Crim stands at site of his famous 1930 East Texas oil well, the Lou Della Crim No. 1, named after his mother.

Some say a gypsy predicted the oil discovery for Malcolm Crim. Others say it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman.

On December 28, 1930, Mrs. Crim’s eldest son struck a gusher on her Rusk County, Texas, farm. The Lou Della Crim No. 1 well initially produced 20,000 barrels of oil every day.

“On Sunday morning, December 28, while Mrs. Crim was attending church, the Lou Della Crim well blew in,” says Joe White, director of the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore. The oil strike was about nine miles north of an earlier discovery on another widow’s farm.

In October, the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well of Columbus “Dad” Joiner had disproved experts who claimed East Texas contained no oil. Yet the distance between these discoveries convinced geologists – and major oil companies – that the wells had found separate oilfields.

No one was aware that the two “wildcat” exploratory wells were part of what was then a geological phenomenon, says White, who founded the East Texas Oil Museum in 1980.

“An incredible deposit of oil in the Woodbine formation had ‘pinched out’ as it tilted upward against the Sabine Uplift, creating the massive East Texas oilfield,” White explains.

The two wells made headlines and launched a drilling frenzy. A small town surrounded by cotton-producing farms in the grip of a devastating drought, Kilgore’s population grew from 700 to 10,000 in just a few days.

Like “Dad” Joiner, Malcolm Crim ignored reports from geologists who claimed, in good conscience, that the earth below Kilgore was barren and worthless, says historian Calib Pirtle III. “The drought-stricken soil grew a few vegetables for families to eat but little else.”

lou della crim

Discovered in 1930, the East Texas oilfield brought wealth – and derricks – to Kilgore and other cotton-farming communities in the grips of a drought. The field’s massive production gave the Allies the petroleum reserves needed to win World War II.

But according to Pirtle, Malcolm Crim was not a farmer. “He owned a little mercantile store downtown, peddling, he once said, everything from candy to coffins. As the decade of the twenties wound down, his cash drawer was filled with a few coins and greenbacks, but mostly IOUs.”

Earlier, a gypsy from West Texas, for fifty cents, had given Crim a psychic glimpse of the land under his mother’s farm “turning black with oil,” reports Pirtle.

“She knew a lot about his past. There was no reason for him to doubt that she had a clear view of his future as well,” Pirtle adds.

lou della crim

The East Texas oilfield remains the largest and most prolific oil reservoir ever discovered in the contiguous United States.

Crim obtained scattered leases, including some on the farm of his mother. He needed an oil company with a skilled driller – but no company wanted to risk an expensive exploratory well on a gypsy’s vision, Pirtle says. They knew of the many “dusters” drilled by “Dad” Joiner in the late 1920s.

“No one had watched the exasperating failures of Dad Joiner’s poor boy venture with more interest than Malcolm Crim,” Pirtle notes.

“Even while the old wildcatter was preparing to drill Daisy Bradford No. 3, Crim was meeting in Kilgore with two employees of a little independent Fort Worth oil company operated by Ed Bateman,” he adds.

Bateman, a former newspaperman with the Dallas Times Herald, became intrigued with the promise of oil in East Texas,” says Pirtle. While searching for leases, Bateman had met a driller named Elmer Hays, who had told him, “I’ll help you find a lease if you’ll let me drill the well.”

Hays introduced Bateman to Crim, Pirtle says. It was time, he thought, that two good men with the same dream finally got together.”

Crim was not a difficult man to find, according to Pirtle in The Man Who Believed in Fortune Tellers. He cites Hays’ sister saying, “You just pick out the man in the raggedest britches and the slouchiest hat.”

The fortunes of Kilgore’s mercantile store owner changed forever on December 28, 1930 – as did those of many who lived on the 140,000 acres in five counties above the East Texas oilfield.

lou della crim

In 1932 Malcolm Crim’s younger brother Liggett owned the Crim, Kilgore’s most popular first-run movie house.

No sooner had the oil wells come in than Malcolm Crim, owner-operator of his family’s local general store, with whom everyone in town did business, declared that all debts were forgiven. Crim invited his customers down to the store where he tore up their IOU papers into scraps and burned them saying “we’re wiping the slate clean, we’re even with everybody.”

He knew what conditions were like for his fellow citizens and he knew immediately how the discovery of oil would change all of their situations for the better.

It was also an early example of the many similar charitable acts for the good of the community that the Crims performed in the following years. – From Neal Campbell, Words and Pictures.

In January 1931 a third well proved the East Texas oilfield was the largest ever. The J.K. Lathrop lease in Gregg County produced 18,000 barrels daily, 15 miles north of the Lou Della Crim.

The East Texas oilfield – 43 miles long and 12.5 miles wide – will produce more than five billion barrels of oil. It continues to produce and remains the largest and most prolific oil reservoir ever discovered in the contiguous United States.

Learn more in East Texas OilfieldDiscovery. Visit the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore.

lou della crim

“The two men who gave Kilgore entertainment and fireworks, Liggett Crim, left, and Knox Lamb, prepare for the opening of Boom Town, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The movie revived memories of Kilgore’s own boom, featured with old photographs on the counter.” – Caption of undated photograph. Image courtesy Neal Campbell, Words and Pictures.