Seeking a water well in 1894, Corsicana discovered an oilfield.
A contractor hired by the town of Corsicana to drill a water well on 12th Street found oil instead, creating a drilling frenzy seven years before a more famous discovery at Spindletop Hill, 230 miles southeast.
Although Corsican’s first oil well produced less than three barrels of oil a day, it soon 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).
Although it was not the state’s first oil discovery, the failed water well helped establish an exploration and production industry. Corsicana reportedly built the first refinery west of the Mississippi. It also was home to Wolf Brand Chili.
The first oil well in Texas was drilled by Lyne T. Barret in 1866 in Nacogdoches County, as explained in First Lone Star Discovery.
In Corsicana, the American Well and Prospecting Company from Kansas made the 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 $1,000 fee.
Although the Navarro County well was inside the giant Mid-Continent field, it produced just 2.5 barrels a day. The Texas oil well eventually attracted people from the new U.S. petroleum industry.
Despite a second well in 1895 being a dry hole, a third oil well – at Fourth and Collins streets – in May 1896 yielded 22 barrels of oil a day. By the beginning of 1897, the field was producing 65,975 barrels of oil from 47 wells.
The oil boom brought a new wave of prosperity to the town, according to a local historian, including a massive courthouse built in 1905 and still in use. In 1917, the Corsicana Chamber of Commerce was founded.
In 1923 a second, even larger oil deposit, the Powell oil field, was discovered, unleashing a new drilling boom that attracted thousands. According to Christopher Long of the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), the first Texas oil refinery was built in Corsicana in 1897.
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 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. (also see Making Hole – Drilling Technology). The local rotary rigs were soon known as “Corsicana rigs.”
An American Well and Prospecting rotary rig drilled the famous gusher at Spindletop Hill in January 1901. Corsicana boomed at the same time, according to TSHA historian Long, with a 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.”
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.
Mixing Corsicana Oil and 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,” says a Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) historian.
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,”
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 Petroleum 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 disocvery well was completed at the corner of Mill and First streets on November 28, 1892. Learn more in First Kansas Oil Well. Also see Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.
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. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: First Texas Oil Boom.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/texas-oil-boom. Last Updated: June 8, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29 2013.