The North Texas church once declared the richest in America.


In the fall of 1917, the Eastland County cotton-farming town of Merriman was inhabited by “ranchers, farmers, and businessmen struggling to survive an economic slump brought on by severe drought and boll weevil-ravaged cotton fields.”

Everything changed on October 17, when a Texas & Pacific Coal Company wildcat well struck oil near Ranger, four miles from Merriman. The J.H. McCleskey No. 1 well produced 1,600 barrels of oil a day.

The rush to acquire leases and drill became legendary among oil booms, even for Texas, home of the 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont.

As drilling continued in Eastland County, yield of the Ranger oilfield led to peak production reaching more than 14 million barrels in 1919. Production from “Roaring Ranger” and its giant North Texas oilfield helped win World War I.

McCleskey No. 1 cable-tool oil well, the "Roaring Ranger" gusher of 1917.

McCleskey No. 1 cable-tool oil well, the “Roaring Ranger” gusher of 1917, brought an oil boom to Eastland County, Texas, about 100 miles west of Dallas.

Texas & Pacific Coal Company had taken a great risk by leasing acreage around Ranger, but the risk paid off when lease values soared. The company quickly added “oil” to its name, becoming the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

The price of the oil company stock jumped from $30 a share to $1,250 a share as a host of landmen, “scanned the landscape to discover any fractions in these holdings. A little school and church, before too small to be seen, now looked like a sky scraper.”

Oil wells at Merriman Merriman Baptist Church near Ranger, Texas, circa 1920.

“So as we could not worship God on the former acre of ground, we decided to lease it and honor God with the product,” explained Merriman Baptist Church Deacon J.T. Falls. Photo courtesy Robert Vann, “Lone Star Bonanza, the Ranger Oil Boom of 1917-1923.”

Warren Wagner, driller of the McCleskey discovery well, leased the local school lot and in August 1918 completed a well producing 2,500 barrels of oil a day. Merriman Baptist Church was a different kind of challenge.

Deacon J.T. Falls complained in February 1919 that the drilling boom’s oil wells, “ran us out, as all of the land around our acre was leased, producing wells being brought in so near the house we were compelled to abandon the church because of the gas fumes and noisy machinery.”


Deacon J.T. Falls and congregation of Merriman Baptist Church in 1919.

Deacon J.T. Falls (second from left) was not amused when the Associated Press reported in 1919 that his church had refused a million dollars for the lease of the cemetery.

Falls added that, “So as we could not worship God on the former acre of ground, we decided to lease it and honor God with the product.”

A Texas State Historical Society marker erected in 1999 records when the well on the church’s lease struck oil, earning the congregation a royalty of between $300 and $400 a day. Merriman Baptist Church, “kept a small amount for operating expenses and gave the rest to various Baptist organizations and charities.”

However, drilling in the church graveyard was a different matter.

Respecting the Dead

At the cemetery, a second, less seen Texas Historical Society marker notes the oil boom’s fierce competition to find property without a well already drilling on it: “Oil speculators reportedly offered members of the Merriman Baptist Church a large sum of money to lease the cemetery grounds for drilling.”

When local newspapers reported the church had refused an offer of $1 million, the Associated Press picked it up and newspapers from New York to San Francisco ran the story. Literary Digest even featured, “the Texas Mammon of Righteousness” with a photograph of the “The Congregation That Refuses A Million.”

A 1999 Texas State Historical Society marker for Merriman Baptist Church oil royalties.

A 1999 Texas State Historical Society marker explains how members of the Merriman Baptist Church generously shared oil royalties.

Deacon J.T. Falls was not amused. “A great many clippings have been sent to us from many secular papers to the effect that we as a church have refused a million dollars for the lease of the cemetery. We do not know how such a statement started,” the deacon opined.

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“The cemetery does not belong to the church. It was here long before the church was. We could not lease it if we would and we would not if we could,” the cleric added.

 “If any person’s or company’s heart has become so congealed as to want to drill for oil in this cemetery, they could not – for the dead could not sign a lease and no living person has any right to do so,” Falls proclaimed.

The church deacon concluded with an ominous admonition to potential drillers, “Those that have friends buried here have the right and the will to protect the graves and any person attempting to trespass will assume a great risk.”

Merriman Baptist Church oil well featured in trade journal of 1918.

A 1918 article noted a “Merriman school house” oil well drilled to 3,200 feet in record time for North Central Texas.

Roaring Ranger’s oil production dropped precipitously because of dwindling reservoir pressures brought on by unconstrained drilling. Many exploration and production companies failed (including fraudulent ones like Hog Creek Carruth Oil Company).

In the decades since the McCleskey No. 1 well, advancements in horizontal drilling technology have presented more legal challenges to mineral rights of the interred, according to Zack Callarman of Texas Wesleyan School of Law.

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Callarman wrote an award-winning analysis of laws concerning drilling to extract oil and natural gas underneath cemeteries. “Seven Thousand Feet Under: Does Drilling Disturb the Dead? Or Does Drilling Underneath the Dead Disturb the Living?” was published in the Real Estate Law Journal in 2014.

Despite yet another North Texas oilfield discovery at Desdemona, by 1920 the Eastland County drilling boom was over. The faithful still gather at Merriman Baptist Church every Sunday.


Recommended Reading: Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); Texas Oil and Gas, Postcard History (2013) Wildcatters: Texas Independent Oilmen (1984). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Riches of Merriman Baptist Church.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: January 12, 2023. Original Published Date: January 18, 2019.


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