“The World’s Wonder Oil Pool” in North Texas attracted investors, drillers — and Hollywood.
The July 1918 Burkburnett oilfield discovery on a small farm along the Red River in Texas launched a drilling boom that brought great prosperity to North Texas. It was just the beginning. Less than one year later, a well on another farm added 27 square miles to the oilfield, bringing even more exploration and production companies Wichita County.
Even as oil exploration expanded throughout Texas after the headline-making gusher at Spindletop, in 1901, few companies believed the geology along the Red River at Burkburnett could produce oil. S.L. Fowler thought otherwise, so he and his brother organized the Fowler Farm Oil Company (with W.D. Cline and J.I. Staley).
Booming Burkburnett oilfields would inspire a Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable, who at the time was a teenager working in nearby Oklahoma oilfields.
On July 29, 1918, the company’s Fowler No. 1 wildcat well revealed a massive oilfield beneath the small town of Burkburnett. The subsequent exploration frenzy and the oilfield’s extension arrived two decades before “Boom Town,” the popular 1940 MGM movie they inspired.
The Fowler well was completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, which had been founded in 1907. The cotton-farming town (once called Nesterville) had been renamed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had hunted wolf along the Red River with prominent local rancher Burk Burnett.
Although Wichita County had been producing oil since 1912, thanks to a shallow water well discovery west of Wichita Falls, Fowler’s decision to drill a well on his farm was called “Fowler’s Folly” — until his oil discovery brought hundreds of oil companies rushing into the county.
Fifty-six drilling rigs were at work just three weeks after the original oil strike at a depth of 1,734 feet. By end of 1918, the Burkburnett population had swelled to 8,000 people — and a line of derricks two-miles long greeted new arrivals. Burkburnett oilfield wells were producing 7,500 barrels per day. Then the field grew even bigger.
On April 17, 1919, another exploratory well drilled on a Wichita County farm, the the Bob Waggoner Well No. 1 well, erupted and began producing 4,800 barrels of oil a day. The latest North Texas oil discovery, “was the first well in what became known as the Northwest Extension Oilfield”, according to the Wichita County Historical Commission.
The oilfield addition included about 27 square miles on the former S. Burk Burnett Wild Horse Ranch. “R.M. ‘Bob’ Waggoner’s well led to a boom, and the area was suddenly thick with oil derricks,” the commission noted in a 2004 historical marker.
By June 1919, newspapers nationwide proclaimed more than 850 North Texas oil wells produced oil from “the World’s Wonder Oilfield.”
Nineteen operating refineries in Wichita Falls processed the flood of crude oil. New service companies, brokerage houses, and other businesses added offices along the town’s unpaved streets. Photographers came to shoot derricks — and autos stuck in the mud.
The Burkburnett oilfield joined earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that helped make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production. Twenty trains ran daily between Burkburnett and Wichita Falls until the boom began to fade at the approach of the Great Depression.
Hollywood Boom Town
As its petroleum industry declined, Burkburnett’s population fell throughout 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. His father was reported to have said, “I told the stubborn mule if he left me this time, he need never come back.”
Tourist attractions include the MK&T Depot that served Burkburnett throughout the oil boom, the Red River Riding Association’s Boomtown Rodeo every in July, and an oil museum founded by a local oil producer in the 1970s.
Family Oil Museum
An independent producer decided Burkburnett oilfield history deserved to be preserved. The Felty family’s museum was founded by Francis “F.T.” Felty Sr., who began by establishing an oilfield service company during the revival of a North Texas drilling boom during World War II.
Responding to the war’s steel shortages, Felty had crisscrossed oilfields in a truck pulling used casings. The difficult work gave way to a long career as an oil and natural gas operator.
Felty began his outdoor collection with portable “spudders” and added other vintage oilfield equipment. His son Francis “F.T.” Felty Jr. and other family members have continued preserving North Texas petroleum history for local school children.
Learn more in Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.
Wichita Falls Skyscraper Shaft
High-resolution panoramic photographs of the historic oilfield can be found at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division’s Burkburnett, Texas, “the world’s wonder oil pool, showing 8 months phenomenal development.”
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 contract’s fine print overlooked by investors noted the scale was 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,” explained Carlton Stowers, the 2008 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 noted. “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.
Recommended Reading: Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); 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 (AOGHS) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Boom Town Burkburnett.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/burkburnett-oil. Last Updated: July 21, 2023. Original Published Date: April 29, 2015.