The 1920s West Texas petroleum discoveries that keep on giving.
West Texas petroleum history is made in 1923 when a well blessed by nuns reveals the size of the Permian Basin. A small Texas university owns the arid land deemed worthless by many experts.
The Permian Basin, once known as a “petroleum graveyard,” began to make U. S. petroleum history in 1920 with a discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County in West Texas. But when completed, his well produced just 10 barrels a day.
It would be another discovery well, the Santa Rita No. 1, that convinced wildcatters to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.
Although many experts still considered West Texas barren of oil, the Santa Rita well will produce for seven decades after tapping into the vast commercial oil production of the Permian Basin.
Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made its major oil strike May 28, 1923 – after 21 months of cable-tool drilling that averaged less than five feet a day.
Within three years of the discovery, petroleum royalties endow the University of Texas with $4 million (legislators had given the land to the university when it opened in 1883).
The Texas board of regents will move Santa Rita’s drilling equipment to the campus in 1958, “In order that it may stand as a symbol of a great era in the history of the university.”
Santa Rita’s walking beam today stands near the campus library. After the dedication, the student newspaper of the day described the well “as one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”
The historic well’s oil discovery began in 1919 when attorney and oil speculator Rupert Ricker applied to lease rights on more than 430,000 acres of arid land designated by the state for the financing of the University of Texas. As time ran out to pay a filing fee of about $43,000, Ricker failed to raise money from Fort Worth investors. “Nobody seemed to have any interest in the deal so with the deadline looming he sold the entire scheme to El Pasoans Frank T. Pickrell and Haymon Krupp for the sum of $2,500,” noted a 2017 article in the Permian Basin Petroleum Association Magazine.
Pickrell and Ricker had served in the same army company during World War I.
The Santa Rita No. 1 well near Big Lake was spudded shortly before midnight on August 17, 1921 – on the last day before the 18-month drilling permit was to expire.
Pickrell hired an experienced Pennsylvania driller, Carl Cromwell, to drill Texon Oil and Land’s test well. Cromwell had been born in 1889 not far from the first commercial U.S. oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Drilling crews, when available, “consisted mostly of cowboy roustabouts who were distinguished for high absenteeism and steady turnover,” notes one historian. The well was often shut down and roughnecks laid off because cash was not available to pay salaries or buy supplies.
Several months after drilling began, the increasingly desperate Pickrell, climbed to the top of the derrick. He threw out rose petals that a group of Catholic women investors from New York had given him. Pickrell christened the well for the patron Saint of the Impossible – Santa Rita.
On May 25,1923, oil and natural gas began to show at the well. On May 28, a loud roar was heard and Santa Rita No. 1 blew in. People as far away as Fort Worth traveled to see the well.
When the necessary casing and other well equipment arrived a month later, it was brought under control – and the first commercial well in the Permian Basin went into production.
In the fall of 1923, Pickrell found an important investor, Michael L. Benedum, the highly successful independent oilman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Benedum and another Pittsburgh wildcatter, Joseph Trees, purchased Texon properties and formed the Big Lake Oil Company in 1924.
The new company’s president, Levi Smith, would be instrumental in creating Big Lake – the first oil company town in the Permian Basin. Santa Rita No. 1 well, capped in May 1990, is remembered with a replica that stands in the Reagan County Park.
The Big Lake oilfield proved to be 4.5 square miles and demonstrated that vast oil reserves in West Texas came from both shallow and deep horizons.
Exploration spread into other areas of the Permian Basin, which would become one of the largest oil-producing regions in the United States.
Learn the story the Permian Basin at the Petroleum Museum in Midland. Not far from the museum, in Odessa, an Ector County historical marker notes “the first Permian Basin dry hole” was drilled in 1924.
Pennsylvania oilmen drilled the well to 900 feet and found only “Red Bed” rock, notes the 1965 marker. The well was abandoned — but by 1964 Ector County would have 9,600 oil wells.
Movie features Big Lake Baseball
The 2002 movie “The Rookie” was filmed almost entirely in West Texas. It featured a Big Lake high-school teacher played by Dennis Quaid, who despite being in his mid-30s briefly makes it to the major leagues.
As the well is being drilled, Catholic nuns are shown carrying a basket of rose pedals to christen it for the patron Saint of the Impossible – Santa Rita. Learn more in Oilfields of Dreams.
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.