Drilling for water in 1894, Corsicana discovered an oilfield and became the richest town in Texas.
In the summer of 1894, town leaders of Corsicana, Texas, hired a contractor to drill a water well on 12th Street, but the driller found oil instead. The town’s oilfield discovery launched the first Texas oil boom seven years before a more famous gusher at Spindletop Hill, 230 miles southeast.
Corsicana’s first oil well produced less than three barrels of oil a day, but it quickly transformed the sleepy agricultural town into a petroleum and industrial center. The discovery launched industries, including service companies and manufacturers of the newly invented rotary drilling rig.
Corsicana local historians consider the 1894 discovery well, drilled on South 12th Street, the first significant commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi (Kansans claim the same distinction for an 1892 Neodesha oil well).
The American Well and Prospecting Company (from Kansas) made the oil strike on June 9, 1894, at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council — angry and still wanting water for its growing community 55 miles south of Dallas — paid only half of the drilling contractor’s $1,000 fee.
Although the well was not the first Texas oil discovery, which was drilled by Lyne T. Barret in 1866 in Nacogdoches County, Corsicana’s failed water well helped establish the state’s massive exploration and production industry. More discoveries led to construction of earliest refineries west of the Mississippi. The town also became home to the famous Wolf Brand Chili brand.
The Navarro County well was inside the giant Mid-Continent field produced just 2.5 barrels a day, and a second well in 1895 found nothing — a dry hole. But a third oil well at Fourth and Collins streets in May 1896, yielded 22 barrels of oil a day.
News of these Texas oil wells began attracting drillers from the young U.S. petroleum industry in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
By the beginning of 1897, the Corsicana oilfield was producing 65,975 barrels of oil from 47 wells. The drilling boom brought a new wave of prosperity to the town. A giant courthouse was erected in 1905 and the Corsicana Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1917.
In 1923, a second, even larger oil reservoir, the Powell oilfield, was discovered, unleashing another drilling boom attracting thousands of people. According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), the first Texas oil refinery was built in Corsicana.
“The first relatively modern refinery in Texas, operated by the J.S. Cullinan Company, opened at the field in 1898,” Roger Olien noted for TSHA. “The major importance of the Corsicana field lay in establishing the potential for commercial oil production in Texas.”
By the next year there were 287 producing wells in the Corsicana field. The town also became a center for oilfield service companies.
Inventing the “Corsicana Rig”
The discovery of oil transformed Corsicana from a regional agricultural shipping town to an important oil and industrial center, creating a number of allied businesses. One new enterprise was started by the company that had drilled the 1894 discovery well. It would help revolutionize drilling technology.
Although American Well and Prospecting Company continued to drill wells, its far-sighted owners decided to open an equipment repair shop in Corsicana. Business boomed. In 1900 the company secured the rights for a hydraulic rotary drilling rig design. It began manufacturing this oil field innovation far more efficient than traditional cable tools.
The local rotary rigs were soon known as “Corsicana rigs.” The improved technology spread rapidly as the Texas petroleum industry grew.
It would be an American Well and Prospecting rotary rig that drilled the famous gusher at Spindletop Hill in January 1901. Corsicana boomed at the same time, according to TSHA historian Long, with its population exceeding 9,300, with three banks, 12 newspapers, eight hotels, about 50 retail stores, a cotton mill, 32 doctors, and 35 saloons.
More discoveries followed in the petroleum-rich region southeast of Dallas. “The oil business continued to form the mainstay of the town’s economy,” Long reported. “Huge oil profits fostered great wealth in Corsicana.”
Circa 1910 Corsicana Oil Refinery
Owned by Security Oil Company since 1903 and picture below just a few years later, the Chaison Refinery of Beaumont, Texas, played a key role in the Texas breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. In 1909, a federal court ruled Security Oil was in fact controlled by Standard Oil and the refinery was auctioned.
As a result, the refinery’s buyer, John Sealey of Galveston, added the company to his the Corsicana Refining Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil Company of New York.
Sealey combined the refineries and on April 14, 1911, formed a partnership called Magnolia Petroleum Company — with Standard Oil of New Jersey a major stockholder. It was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the Standard Oil Trust.
— From a collection of images documenting the career Albert Jeffreys in Texas, Louisiana, Rumania, Pennsylvania and England, 1904-1913. Family photography (preserved by his granddaughter), became part of an oil museum’s collection in Beaumont, Texas. Learn more in Oil & Gas Families – Albert Jeffreys Family Collection.
Richest Texas Town
In 1953 Corsicana claimed to have the highest per capita income of any town in Texas. One reporter wrote that 21 millionaires lived within the city limits. Another drilling boom arrived in 1956 when a new oil field was discovered just east of town. Within months there were more 500 wells — and once again, “nearly one drill rig in every backyard.”
The Corsicana field produced about 125 million barrels of oil. In 1976, Corsicana leaders decided to commemorate the community’s rich petroleum exploration history — and its importance to the county’s economic development.
The annual Derrick Days festival (and popular Chili & BBQ Cook-off) has since become a premier gathering in Navarro County and grown with additional activities each year.
Oil and Wolf Brand Chili
Lyman T. Davis of Corsicana developed a chili recipe in 1895. He sold his chili for five cents a bowl from the back of a wagon parked on downtown streets. For two decades he called it “Lyman’s Famous Chili.”
By 1921, Davis was canning his popular chili, which he decided to rename. “It was about that time that he adopted the brand name ‘Wolf Brand,’ a name suggested to him in honor of his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill,” reported TSHA in 1978 from a Navarro College Oral History Collection.
By 1923, Davis had increased production to 2,000 cans of chili per day, reports Tommy W. Stringer in his 2010 Wolf Brand Chili article. “Because of the discovery of oil on his ranch, he had neither the time nor the interest to devote to his chili business, and in 1924 he sold his operations to J.C. West and Fred Slauson, two Corsicana businessmen,” explained TSHA.
In 1977 Wolf Brand, then owned by Quaker Oats, and other chili manufacturers successfully lobbied Texas lawmakers to have chili proclaimed the official “state food” of Texas. Consolidating of its operations, Quaker Oats closed the Corsicana plant in 1985.
The brand of Wolf Brand Chili is now owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. The original oil boom town recipe remains unchanged, according to the company, which also owns the trademarked slogan, “Neighbor, how long has it been since you had a big, thick, steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili? Well, that’s too long!”
Derrick Days Heritage Tour
For years, the closest connection between Derrick Days and the oil patch was the name, notes a 2013 article in the Corsicana Daily Sun newspaper.
“But in recent years there’s been at least a few links to that history that helped build Corsicana,” explains reporter Janet Jacobs. “The tour was guided by C.L. “Buster” Brown, former mayor of Corsicana and an oilman himself.”
Brown’s tour included stops at Petroleum Park on South 12th Street in Corsicana, where the first oil well was drilled, and the former refinery on South 15th, which also was the first refinery west of the Mississippi, according to Jacobs.
The group also took a “long stop at the former home of Tuckertown, the rough neck tent city that sprang up in response to the enormous oil field that stretched between where the town of Navarro and the town of Powell,” she says, noting the tent city later became the town of Mildred.
“The final stop of the tour was at the Mildred town hall, where a historical marker stands,” Jacobs concludes. “It was during those boom years that the older schools in Corsicana were built — Drane, Lee and Sam Houston — and the ornate yellow Chase Bank building, previously called the State National Bank.”
Oil historians in Neodesha, Kansas, also claim the first oil discovery west of the Mississippi. Two years earlier than the Corsicana well, a discovery well was completed at the corner of Mill and First streets on November 28, 1892. Learn more in First Kansas Oil Well.
Recommended Reading: Corsicana (2010); Texas Oil and Gas (2013); Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); Neighbor, how long has it been?: The story of Wolf Brand Chili, a Texas legend (1995). 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. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: First Texas Oil Boom.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/texas-oil-boom. Last Updated: June 2, 2023. Original Published Date: April 29 2013.