“The World’s Wonder Oil Pool” attracted investors, drillers, and Hollywood.
A July 1918 oil 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 an 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 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 on a Wichita County farmer, 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, comprised of approximately 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,” notes a Burkburnett historical marker.
By June 1919, more than North Texas 850 oil wells were producing in “the World’s Wonder Oilfield.”
Nineteen operating refineries in Wichita Falls refineries 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.
Affected by the oil industry’s decline, 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.”
Among tourist attractions include the MK&T Depot near the railroad tracks that served Burkburnett throughout the oil boom and after. Special events the Red River Riding Association Boomtown Rodeo every year in July — and an outdoor oil museum founded by an independent oil producer in the 1970s for local school children.
The Felty family oil museum was founded by Francis “F.T.” Felty Sr., who operated an oilfield service company during the revival of a North Texas drilling boom during World War II. Responding to the war’s steel shortages, he crisscrossed oilfields in a truck pulling used casings. It turned into a long career as an oil and natural gas producer.
Felty began his collection with portable “spudders” and add other vintage oilfield equipment. His son Francis “F.T.” Felty Jr. and other family members continued tradition of preserving North Texas petroleum history. Learn more in Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.
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.”
Wichita Falls Skyscraper Shaft
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 fine print his investors overlooked noted a scale 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,” notes Carlton Stowers, 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: 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 supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 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 24, 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2015.