Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters
Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” wildcatter Tom Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield in 1912 and became known as the “King of the Wildcatters.” Today Cushing is the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” the trading hub for oil in North America – and the daily settlement point for prices, including West Texas Intermediate.
Looking for Leases
The owner of Spurlock Petroleum Company, enjoyed great success in the Kansas oilfields after finding oil or natural gas in 25 consecutive wells.
In 1904, Alexander Massey hired an inexperienced 21-year-old “lease man” named Thomas Baker Slick for a 25 percent share in all the leases the young man could secure. Massey and his new employee set out for Tryon, Oklahoma, to look for oil.
Massey later recalled that Slick, born in Shippenville, Pennsylvania, in 1883, showed a talent for securing petroleum leases.
“Tom would go out and lease most of a territory as yet unproved or doubtful as to oil prospects,” Massey noted. “But he’d spread as clean a bunch of leases before a capitalist as you’d wish to see…He certainly knew what a good oil lease was.”
Near Tryon, Oklahoma, Spurlock Petroleum Company spudded a wildcat well at M.C. Teegarden’s farm. Slick continued securing leases that eventually totaled more than 27,000 acres. Drilling generated excitement in the local newspaper and with other wildcatters.
However, at a depth of 2,800 feet, Spurlock Petroleum and owner Massey ran out of patience and money. Tom Slick’s first well was a dry hole – the first of many.
Dry Hole Slick
In 1907, after another dry hole near Kendrick, Slick left the employ of Massey and departed Oklahoma, headed for Illinois.
In Chicago, Charles B. Shaffer of the Shaffer & Smathers Company hired Slick for $100 per month (and expenses) to find and secure promising oil leases. Slick traveled to Illinois, Kentucky, western Canada, and eventually, back to Oklahoma.
While leasing for Shaffer & Smathers in Oklahoma, the young oilman drilled at least ten dry holes and earned the unenviable nickname, “Dry Hole Slick.”
The Bristow Record newspaper reported that Slick, “continues to gamble on wild cat stuff. Few men have stuck to the wildcatting longer and harder than Slick and associates. It is said he has spent $150,000 mostly on dry holes.” Now also known as “Mad Tom” Slick, he tried his luck again just 35 miles down the road, in Cushing.
As “Mad Tom” pursued new leases in 1912, newspapers like the Cushing Independent encouraged readers to take advantage of leasing opportunities.
“Land owners have everything to gain and no risk to themselves in making leases,” it reported on January 25. “It costs from $8,000 to $10,000 to put down a single hole. Unless the promoters can get the leases they want they will not chance their money here, while other localities are eager to give leases and even bonuses in money to get prospecting done.”
The Cushing Democrat added, “We would repeat that we believe it to the best interests of the individuals and all that these leases be granted…And just a word of warning. If you make a lease see that the lessees name is not left blank, but that the name of Thomas B. Slick is there.”
Slick and Charles Shaffer spudded a wildcat well on the farm of Frank M. Wheeler in January 1912.
Cushing Gusher and Crafty Moves
On March 12, 1912, the Wheeler No. 1 well struck oil, producing about 400 barrels a day from a depth between 2,319 and 2,347 feet. It marked Tom Slick’s first gusher – and a giant oilfield discovery. Slick was so secretive about his find that he even cut the phone line to the Wheeler house to prevent word from spreading, notes one historian. Knowing that oilmen and speculators would descend in droves on the town when the word got out, he protected his investment.
How Slick did it is described by a frustrated competing lease man to his boss:
You see, sir, Slick and Shaffer roped off their well on the Wheeler farm and posted guards and nobody can get near it…I got a call yesterday at the hotel in Cushing from a friend who said they had struck oil out there. A friend of his was listening in on the party line and heard the driller call Tom Slick at the farm where he’s been boarding and said they’d hit.
Well, I rushed down to the livery stable to get a rig to go out and do some leasing and damned if Slick hadn’t already been there and hired every rig. Not only there, but every other stable in town. They all had the barns locked and the horses out to pasture. There’s 25 rigs for hire in Cushing and he had them all for ten days at $4.50 a day apiece, so you know he really thinks he’s got something.
I went looking for a farm wagon to hire and had to walk three miles. Some other scouts had already gotten the wagons on the first farms I hit. Soon as I got one I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases – and damned if Slick hadn’t hired every notary in town, too.
Eleven days later the news had spread. As a leasing frenzy grew the Tryon Star reported, “Our old friend Tom Slick the oilman has struck it rich…Slick has been plugging away for several years and has put down several dry holes…He deserves this success and here’s hoping that it will make Tom his millions.”
King of the Wildcatters
Tom Slick’s No. 1 Wheeler was the discovery well for the prolific Drumright-Cushing oilfield, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels every day at its peak.
Slick was suddenly a very rich man. After his dramatic success in Cushing, he began an incredible 18-year streak of discoveries in some of the nation’s most prolific oilfields. His leases in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas produced millions of barrels of oil.
In the famed oilfields of Pioneer, Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole, Slick secured leases and drilled wells that consistently paid off, time after time.
His gushers were spectacular: No. 4 Eakin – 10,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Laura Endicott – 4,500 barrels per day; No. 1 Walker – 5,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Franks -5,000 barrels per day. See Greater Seminole Oil Boom.
Reflecting on his fortunes late in his career, Slick noted, “If I strike oil everyone calls it Tom Slick’s luck, (but) I call it largely judgment based upon experience. Some folks don’t recognize good luck when they meet it in the middle of the road. So I have been fortunate, or lucky, whichever you call it, but I’ve also done a lot of calling good luck to bring it my way.”
By 1929, Tom Slick’s estimated crude oil production was up to 35,000 barrels daily. He was known as the largest independent oil operator in the United States with a net worth estimated between $35 million and $100 million.
By 1930, in the Oklahoma City field alone, Slick had 45 wells being drilled, more than 30 wells completed, and the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of crude daily. Across the Mid-Continent, stories of Tom Slick’s business acumen and integrity grew with his fortune.
It was often told how Slick once closed a $100,000 deal for a prized Seminole lease on a street corner. He met the owner on the street and inquired, “What do you want for that lease’ ‘A hundred thousand dollars,’ replied the owner. ‘It’s a sale, bring in your deeds,’ said Slick.”
Thomas B. Slick’s death from a stroke in August 1930 at the age of 46 abruptly ended a career that had helped supply an energy-hungry nation with the petroleum it needed to grow.
“Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field stood silent for one hour in tribute,” reports the Oklahoma Historical Society. Slick’s biggest strike came a week after he died. His Campbell No. 1 well in Oklahoma City came in at 43,200 barrels per day.
Today, such stories of Tom Slick’s life are told again and again. Across the Mid-Continent, he is no longer known as “Dry Hole Slick.” Instead, Thomas B. Slick is remembered as a “King of the Wildcatters.”
In Oklahoma alone, more than 470,400 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled since the first discovery well near Bartlesville on April 15, 1879, notes the Oklahoma Geological Survey (read First Oklahoma Oil Well). In 1933, Tom Slick’s friend and business partner, Charles Urschel, was kidnapped and held for ransom. Once released, Urschel assisted the FBI in catching his abductors, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was sentenced to life in Alcatraz.
The substance of this article comes from King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930 by Ray Miles, professor of history and dean of the college of liberal arts at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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