A small church in Texas was 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 away.
The J.H. McCleskey No. 1 well produced 1,600 barrels of oil a day, enough to buy nine new Ford Model-T touring cars every day. The rush to drill in the “Roaring Ranger” field soon became legendary among oil booms, even for Texas, home of the 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop. As drilling continued, the potential yield of the Ranger oilfield led to peak production reaching more than 14 million barrels in 1919.
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 company stock jumped from $30 a share to $1,250 a share as 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.”
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.”
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.”
But drilling in the church graveyard was a different matter.
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 that 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.”
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,” he opined.
“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 deacon explained. “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.”
Deacon Falls concluded with an ominous admonition to potential drillers that “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.”
A lack of knowledge about the young science of petroleum geology defused the issue. Roaring Ranger’s oil production dropped precipitously because of dwindling reservoir pressures brought on by unconstrained drilling.
Despite another oilfield discovery at Desdemona, by 1920 the Eastland County drilling boom was over. Many exploration and production companies failed (including fraudulent ones like Hog Creek Carruth Oil Company).
But today, a faithful congregation still gathers at Merriman Baptist Church every Sunday.
In the decades since the McCleskey No. 1 well, advancements in horizontal drilling technology have presented new legal challenges to mineral rights of the interred, according to Zack Callarman of Texas Wesleyan School of Law. Callarman wrote an award-winning analysis of laws concerning drilling to extract oil and natural gas underneath cemeteries. His “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.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact email@example.com. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.