The popular Depression era comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a cartoonist who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps.

alley oop

A 1995 postage stamp commemorates Alley Oop by Victor Hamlin, a cartoonist from the Yates oil field company town of Iraan, Texas.

Alley Oop appeared for the first time in the summer of 1933 when Victor Hamlin, a former Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reporter, published the soon wildly popular tales about a caveman. Hamlin began syndicating his daily cartoon in the Des Moines Register in Iowa.

Hamlin’s idea for the comic strip, which soon would run in more than 800 newspapers, reportedly began in a small oil “company town” in the Permian Basin.

The West Texas oil town of Iraan (pronounced Eye-Rah-Ann) today proclaims itself as Hamlin’s inspiration for Alley Oop. Story begins with major oilfield discoveries in the Permian Basin, beginning with a 1920 discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County. But it was the success of the Santa Rita No. 1 well in May 1923 that convinced independent oil companies to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.

Iraan first appeared as a company town following the discovery of the prolific Yates oilfield in October 1926. The town’s name combined names of the townsite owners, Ira and Ann Yates. Discovered in southeastern Pecos County, the Yates field brought prosperity to Midland, Odessa and other communities by producing more than 40 million barrels in just three years.

According to one comic strip historian, the cartoonist came up with the idea for Alley Oop while working in the Permian Basin oilfields. As Iraan boomed in the late 1920s, Hamlin, originally from Perry, Iowa, began working in the oil patch.

“He could watch dinosaur bones being removed by the steam shovels and scrapers as they cleared the sites for drilling, wells, and pumps,” Mike Hanlon explains. Hamlin developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.

According to Steve Stiles in The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs, “Hamlin moved on to doing art for an oil industry publication and one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oilfields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory.”

Hamlin, who reportedly witnessed the first oil gusher at Iraan, worked as a cartographer for petroleum company making their site maps. The official start date of his Alley Oop was a daily strip was August 7, 1933. The Sunday page began September 9, 1934.

The biggest roughnecking days are over in Iraan by 1960 – when the band “The Hollywood Argyles” sang Alley Oop was “the toughest man there is alive.” The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.

Tourists visit the Alley Oop Museum and R.V. Park on the northwest edge of Iraan. Thanks to improved recovery techniques, oil production from Yates oil wells continues – and the field is estimated to have one billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining.

Although Hamlin retired in 1971 and died in 1993, his daily strips (now by Jack and Carole Bender) today appear in 600 newspapers. Alley Oop was one of 20 U.S. Postal Service commemorative Comic Strip Classics postage stamp series in 1995. When visiting West Texas, stop by Iraan and visit the Alley Opp Park and Fantasy Land.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.