Lloyd N. Unsell Memoir – Chapters Two and Three
Lloyd N. Unsell (1923-2007), a founding member of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, was the long-time president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America in Washington, D.C. In 1986, he received the industry’s prestigious Chief Roughneck Award in 1986 — the only person not affiliated with an oil company to do so since the award began in 1955. He joined IPAA in 1948 and soon managed public and media relations; he was promoted to executive vice president in 1976 and president in 1985. In December 2004, Unsell gave AOGHS exclusive permission to publish the draft forward and early chapters of his then in-progress memoirs, Recollections of Lloyd N. Unsell.
For those who never met Unsell or heard him speak at countless industry gatherings on testifying on Capitol Hill, read his memoir’s Forward and and Chapter One, “Oil on My Boots” describing his early exposure to the petroleum industry and oil patch summers in Oklahoma, and Chapter Three, “Lifting Some Spirits.” Visit AOGHS again to read more chapters, which will be posted throughout 2019.
Chapter Two: “A Different Seminole”
The interview with the publisher of The Seminole Producer took all of five minutes. I had bought a new blue topcoat, and James T. Jackson asked me to take it off, hang it in the corner of his office, and just leave it there. He was smiling, but years later, he told the editor of the Tulsa World, Norris Henthorne, at a meeting of the Oklahoma Press Association that he only hired me because I was wearing a topcoat that he thought he could trade away from me. He remembered my coat better than I did.
James T. had spent the war as a public information officer at Kelly Field in San Antonio, with the rank of captain. The wartime duty had sharpened his appetite for the grape, and one of his drinking buddies was a columnist and the military editor of the San Antonio Express, an Oklahoman named Emery Winn, one of the most talented writers I have ever known. At the war’s end, James T. brought Emery Winn to Seminole as editor of The Producer. Emery usually was pickled by noon, but he could write a perfect headline and edit copy style-perfect without losing a beat. For editorial staff, Emery and I and a young lady who put together a society page were all of it, far different from the raucous boom days when James T. had at least eight reporters on the paper.
Everyone in their lives can name individuals who gave them meaningful help and support, and Emery Winn came into my life at precisely the right time. I didn’t know it right off, but later learned of his extensive admirers in the newspaper field, people who recognized his talents not just as an all-around newspaperman, but his knowledge and competence in use of the English language. As a wannabe newspaperman, the tutelage of Emery Winn was the best thing that ever happened to me.
The war had reduced the domestic oil industry, particularly the independents who had always found most of the oil, to a near standstill, and this showed nowhere more than in the Seminole field. Crude oil had been controlled at a dollar a barrel during the four wearisome war years, and nearly all the available steel had been allocated to the building of tanks, army vehicles, troop and liberty ships, and all the other hardware so essential in war. One American regret: We had sold Japan millions of tons of scrap steel in the 1930s, much of it turned on us as weapons of war beginning at Pearl Harbor.
Most domestic oilfields, Greater Seminole no exception, had been produced beyond their efficient rates, stripped of their natural reservoir pressure to squeeze out the vast quantities of fuel required by the far-flung allied armed forces on two sides of the planet. U. S. oil supplied 85 percent of the oil used by all the allies in pursuit of their victory. Large quantities of domestic oil could have been found and developed, except for pressing shortages of tubular goods needed to drill and equip wells. Used pipe was at a premium, and much of the pipe available could be had only at black or gray market prices. Drilling materials at unaffordable costs with oil fixed at a dollar a barrel had brought drilling to a virtual halt.
The independents and small drilling contractors in Seminole were a dispirited lot in January 1946 when I joined the staff of my hometown newspaper. They could drive by huge racks of fenced-in pipe stockpiled by the major companies operating in the field. The majors had pipe because they had the connections, and the purchasing power. A sign that Seminole had seen its glory years was the pulling of production strings from depleted wells sapped by over-production in the war years. Such pipe was scavenged, cleaned and sold to wildcatters who had prospects to drill that they had sat on for years. The frustrations that went with trying to revitalize a virtually deactivated industry were not much fun.
But on top of these frustrations came new headaches from a cadre of the AFL-CIO dispatched to Seminole to organize drillers and roughnecks. A dozen union representatives, including a goon squad of at least six shipped in from the Midland/Odessa area and opened an organizing office in February, 1946. They got no support from The Seminole Producer, which exposed their heavy-handed tactics after a union goon squad paid a midnight visit to a working rig operated by a local contractor, and proceeded to beat the drilling crew to force them in line, putting two in the local hospital. We wrote that story for several days. When it became apparent that drillers and roughnecks would not flock to the union to be “organized,” the agents gave up and left town.
Nobody was sorry to see them go.
End of Chapter Two, posted February 2019.
Chapter Three: “Lifting Some Spirits”
Wanting to be involved in civic affairs at the right levels, I joined and was active in the Seminole Junior Chamber of Commerce (now the Jaycees), and the local Lions club. At a meeting of the young businessmen in the Jaycee group in March 1946, a discussion was held about appropriate projects to serve the community. I told the group that Seminole had celebrated the tenth anniversary of the local oil discovery in 1936, and here it was ten years later so the Junior Chamber should sponsor a twentieth anniversary oil bash and schedule it for July 16, the day the Fixico No. l had come roaring in two decades earlier.
I argued that the oil industry was having a struggle, had managed to abort a union organizing drive that — if successful — would have killed off the local drilling contractors, was scrabbling for scarce pipe and materials to try to jump-start field activity again, and was in need of a boost and a shot in the arm in the form of community recognition. The room was quiet for a minute, than smiles spread over all the faces in the room. Coaxing the Seminole Junior Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a Discovery Day blowout recognizing the contributions to Seminole of the oil industry was the easiest sell I ever made.
James T. Jackson was looking for a change of scenery in 1946, and was quietly casting about for a buyer for the newspaper. He finally sold the paper to Tom and Milt Phillips, brothers who owned two other small but thriving daily newspapers in the state, and Milt had come to Seminole to be the on-site publisher of The Producer. The sale price was $100,000, a lot of money in 1946, and James T. Jackson, affectionately known as “Jack” to his staff, took the money to Pauls Valley, Okla., where he used a sliver of it to buy a radio station and the local newspaper, the Democrat. When I told Milt Phillips about the Jaycee project, he enthusiastically endorsed the idea as something the newspaper should support with all its resources.
Committees were appointed, and frequent meetings held by the Jaycees to discuss ideas for the big celebration. I suggested at one meeting that we order a few hundred inch-and-a-half buttons declaring that “Discovery Day is July 16,” and that the Main street merchants should ask their employees to wear these. The idea was that store customers would ask what this was all about, and the employees would tell them it would be a community celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Seminole oil discovery with entertainment for everybody. Seminole was the shopping center for a wide area of Seminole county, and on Saturdays the town overflowed with people and automobiles. The bright colored badges had the desired effect, and had the added value of involving store clerks throughout the city in promoting the big celebration.
When “Discovery Day,” July 16, 1946, arrived, it started with a parade that lasted three hours. The major oil companies and big supply houses had come in with colorful floats, high school bands were there from a number of schools, rodeo enthusiasts from riding clubs all over central Oklahoma, and huge trucks laden with the latest, heaviest and shiniest oilfield equipment, paraded for an audience estimated at 40,000 crowding the downtown streets. The equipment featured in the parade was displayed in a special area for viewing by the public and industry personnel. Adjoining this was a carnival with a half dozen makeshift cash gaming emporiums manned by Jaycee members. In the Civic Auditorium in the evening, Harold B. Fell, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, made a rousing industry appreciation speech to the city dads and town merchants, and in the Seminole American Legion’s spacious hall the younger set held a “Petroleum Ball,” elected a Miss Petroleum from a dozen candidates, and danced to a big band from the University of Oklahoma.
Harold B. Fell, the CEO of the IPAA, was one of the most effective public speakers the independent oil industry ever produced. A native of Wilkes Barre, Pa., and a Princeton graduate, he immigrated into Oklahoma in the 1920s and settled at Ardmore. As speaker at the Seminole celebration, he fascinated the audience with an accounting of the lore of the local oil boom, saluting the Greater Seminole field in 1927 as the “second largest oilfield in the world.” If he said which field was first, I have forgotten that. But at the time, little could I have suspected that I would spend most of my adult life in the service of IPAA, and precisely 30 years later would inherit Harold Fell’s position and title in the association.
The event rejuvenated the spirits of the Seminole oil community, and local industry leaders lavished praise on the Junior Chamber for its sponsorship of the anniversary celebration. The Jaycees, when the dust had settled, had profited from the Discovery Day activities, gaining about $1100, a lot of money for a young men’s civic organization in 1946. A week after the event, Homer Clauser, a young insurance man who was president of the Jaycees, wrote The Producer’s publisher, Milt Phillips, a letter of thanks for the newspaper’s support. The note began with this sentence: “It was a great day for the Seminole Junior Chamber of Commerce when Lloyd Unsell of your staff came to us with the suggestion that we sponsor the anniversary celebration of the Seminole oil discovery.” Phillips passed the letter to the editor, Floyd Gibson, who replaced Emery Winn (Emery left when James T. Jackson sold the newspaper) after penciling a note on it, “Gib, I didn’t know Lloyd was the daddy of this.”
Being “the reporter” on the local daily newspaper, known to everyone in political, business and social structures of the city, was a lot of fun. Like a lot of small cities, the power structure was sometimes blatantly serve-rewarding, and I tangled with the then mayor of Seminole, J. C. Cravens, who owned the local Ford dealership, over some of his self-dealing. He presided over a five-member elected City Council, and I attended these meetings. It was from Cravens that I first learned about “body language,” before I ever heard that term. He presided from a chair that tilted back, and if he tilted that chair, laced the fingers of both hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling; this communicated his disinterest in whatever was before the Council. It was a given that there would be a motion to kill or table whatever proposition was under discussion.
At one such meeting, the Council discussed and approved the purchase of two very expensive hydraulic garbage trucks from Cravens’ dealership. The mayor, of course, was careful not to participate in this discussion. The next morning, I wandered into City Clerk Herman Sullivan’s office and asked if there was not an ordnance prohibiting the Mayor and/or Council members from doing business with the city. Sullivan said there was, and recited from memory the book and page number where the ordnance was filed. He retrieved it, assured me it was still in force, and opened the book so I could copy the essential purpose of the ordnance. I subsequently wrote an article, which ran on page one, saying the Council’s purchase of garbage trucks from Seminole (Ford) Motor Sales was in apparent violation of an ordinance prohibiting the mayor and council members from doing business with the city.
It was just the first of many things I did which upset Mayor Cravens, the last being its action declining an offer by the state health department to spray the city for mosquitoes at no cost, then acting two weeks later to pay local grocer and feed store owner $2,100 to do the job. When I pointed this out in a story, Cravens made his customary call to complain, but refused to make a statement of his views. I suggested that if he was unhappy about the way I did my job he should talk to the publisher. “I already have,” he said, “and he told me to take it up with you.”
That kind of support from my boss made life worthwhile, and the sheer fun of covering the small-time shenanigans of the local politicians made reporting for a small town newspaper a delightful pursuit. But Seminole was losing a lot of its old luster for me. Changes from the hurly-burly days were visible in many ways. The oilfield trucking business was on the wane. The Hazelrigg truck camp that had so fascinated me with its bustle in the 1930s was in decline and Sid Hazelrigg was holding on but clearly phasing down a business afflicted by eroded demand. The mobile rig builders were introducing new self-contained jack-up rotary rigs of all sizes, and oilfield trucking, which roared into existence in the ‘20s to replace the six-mule teams in the oilfields, was itself now becoming obsolete. The rise and fall of entrepreneurial oilfield trucking occurred over a span of only a little more than two decades.
Other changes had robbed Seminole of its old spark, so I was ready for a change when Lee C. Erhard, managing editor of The Tulsa Daily World, called me one day and invited me to consider a reporting job that he had open. He said that I needn’t come for an interview, that he was familiar with my work, and the job was mine if I wanted to make a move. I accepted he offer, and we agreed on a starting date in two weeks.
When I broke the news to Milt Phillips, I told him I was going to Tulsa in hope of doing something supportive of the oil industry, which – despite its incredible war record – was under political and press attacks in Washington, evidence of which I had read frequently in reports coming into the office on the UP teletype. The Producer’s op-ed page was dominated by the infamous muckraker, Drew Pearson, who liked nothing better than to belittle the oil industry and its imaginary “influence” in Washington.
Milt Phillips wished me well, and said I would always have supporters in the Phillips brothers. He remained a fast friend and frequent correspondent until his death many years later.
End of Chapters Two and Three. Continue reading Chapters Four and Five! Visit AOGHS for more chapters to be added in 2019.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.