Alley Oop’s Oil Roots

Depression Era cartoonist Victor Hamlin worked as an oilfield cartographer in West Texas.

 

The once widely popular newspaper comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a young Texas cartographer who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps.

Alley Oop appeared for the first time in the summer of 1933 when Victor Hamlin, a former Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reporter, published fanciful tales about a caveman.

Hamlin began syndicating his daily cartoon in the Des Moines Register in Iowa. His Paleolithic Age idea for the comic strip, which would run in more than 800 newspapers, reportedly began in a small oil “company town” in the Permian Basin.

The West Texas oil town of Iraan (pronounced Eye-Rah-Ann) later proclaimed itself as the inspiration for Alley Oop. Hamlin’s comics trip character was conceived in the arid region’s earliest oilfields.

On July 20, 1920, a wildcat well in Mitchell County erupted oil on land owned by Texas Pacific Land Trust agent William H. Abrams. Just weeks earlier, another W.H. Abrams well had revealed an oilfield in Brazoria County south of Houston.

Commemorative 1995 32-cent stamp for Alley Oop cartoon character

A 1995 U.S. postage stamp commemorated the Alley Oop character of Victor Hamlin, a cartoonist from the Yates oilfield company town of Iraan, Texas.

After the latest Abrams well was “shot” with nitroglycerin by the Texas Company (later Texaco), the oilfield discovery well produced from the Permian Basin, which would prove to encompass 75,000 square miles in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

In May 1923, when the Santa Rita No. 1 well roared in on land owned by the University of Texas, major oil companies joined independent oil companies in a rush to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin.

Iraan first appeared as a company town following the discovery of the prolific Yates oilfield in October 1926. The town’s name combined names of the townsite owners, Ira and Ann Yates.

Discovered in southeastern Pecos County, the Yates field brought prosperity to Midland, Odessa and other communities by producing more than 40 million barrels in just three years.

Oilfield Cartographer

According to comic-strip historian Mike Hanlon, the young cartoonist from from Perry, Iowa, came up with the idea for Alley Oop while working in the Permian Basin oilfields. Hamlin, who reportedly witnessed the first oil gusher at Iraan, had been hired by an oil company as a cartographer making site maps.

As the boom town Iraan grew in the late 1920s, Hamlin worked in the new West Texas oilfields. “He could watch dinosaur bones being removed by the steam shovels and scrapers as they cleared the sites for drilling, wells, and pumps,” Hanlon explained in “The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs.”.

The future creator of Alley Oop developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.

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According to Steve Stiles website post “The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs,” Hamlin began doing artwork for petroleum industry publications, “before one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oilfields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory.”

Alley Oop Oop

The official start date of Hamlin’s famed caveman as a daily comic strip was August 7, 1933. The adventures of Alley Oop in the prehistoric nation of Moo would also appear in many Sunday newspaper pages. 

Decades after the roughnecking days of Iraan ended, the band “The Hollywood Argyles” in 1960 sang Alley Oop was “the toughest man there is alive.” Their song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.

With improved drilling and oil recovery techniques, production from Yates oil wells has continued. By the beginning the 21 century, the field was estimated to have one billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining. Tourists visiting West Texas can take a break at the Alley Opp RV Park on the northwest edge of Iraan. 

Although Hamlin retired in 1971 (he died in 1993), his daily strips (now by Jack and Carole Bender) have continued to appear in hundreds of newspapers. In 1995, the former oilfield cartographer’s Alley Oop was selected as one of the 20 U.S. Postal Service commemorative Comic Strip Classics postage stamps.

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Recommended Reading:  Yates: A family, A Company, and Some Cornfield Geology (2000); Alley Oop’s Ancestors: The Newspaper Cartoons of V.T. Hamlin (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Alley Oop’s Oil Roots.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/alley-oop-origin-in-permian-basin. Last Updated: July 5, 2022. Original Published Date: August 2, 2015.

Oil in the Land of Oz

Did L. Frank Baum’s 1880s “Castorine” company inspire the Tin Man?

 

The oil can of the Tin Man in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz perhaps can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields, where L. Frank Baum founded a petroleum lubricant business before becoming the famous children’s book author.

“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” explained Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.

Illustration from 1900 children's book Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Before publishing his children’s book in 1900, L. Frank Baum sold a popular axle oil from a company he founded in Syracuse, New York.

Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother started an oil products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.

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The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oil for a living. In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their small business offering lubricants, oils, greases — and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

 Baum's Castorine Company axle oil ad, circa 1880s

L. Frank Baum — whose father found success in Pennsylvania oilfields — served as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which he founded with his brother on July 9, 1883.

Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years.

“He was a traveling salesman for the company,” noted a 2011 exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

oil can

L. Frank Baum’s sales trips may have influenced Oz. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

The Kalamazoo exhibit’s text also explained that although the petroleum lubricating company enjoyed some success, the business “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”

Baum wrote of his Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.” The frustrated businessman sold the oil venture. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.

Son of a Successful Oilman

L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum — one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood.

Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.

Baum's Castorine axle oil products tin advertising sign.

Baum’s Castorine products “are designed to extend machine life and reduce your maintenance costs.”

In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. “Frankie” was then only four and a half years old. Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run would bring his enterprising father great wealth.

“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” wrote Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.

“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers reported. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”

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As U.S. consumer demand for kerosene lamps skyrocketed, Pennsylvania’s oil region produced the new industry’s earliest tycoons, long before Standard Oil Company (also see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”).

By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company and was a well-established independent oil producer. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man.

When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.

The Pioneer Oil Museum of New York

L. Frank Baum’s father once owned an oil company in Bolivar, New York, where a museum today exhibits the region’s extensive petroleum history. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” according to historian Ronald G. Taylor.

“The plant, owned by B.W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor explained.

Although there were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil regions, there no longer was unlimited free enterprise in oilfields.

“John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution,” added Rogers in her book. “In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”

Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the planned pipeline. Despite the setback, Baum continued to find success with prolific oil wells in New York. 

After almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum (1821-1887) died in Syracuse, New York. His petroleum wealth had helped him acquire small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania and permitted his son to pursue writing, publishing journals, and writing for the stage — perhaps setting the stage for Frank’s future fame.

Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can

When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life — and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.

Detail of the Tin Man drawing by W.W, Denslow  from 1899 OZ series book by L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum sold his Baum’s Castorine Company in 1888. His many Castorine sales trips may have led to the idea of a Tin Woodman character for his book, illustrated by W.W. Denslow.

“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explained, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. Schwartz also discovered the company still manufactured industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.

“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz wrote.

“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he noted. “What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”

Learn about the historic Allegheny petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.

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Recommended Reading: L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography (2002); Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story (2009); Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State (1949). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil in the Land of Oz.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/l-frank-baum-castorine-oil. Last Updated: June 30, 2022. Original Published Date: June 1, 2005.

 

Smithsonian’s Hall of Petroleum

 

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum,” which opened in the summer of 1967, devoted an entire wing to oilfield exhibits. The historic collection included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks, and other oilfield exhibits.

Today, with a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History includes surprisingly few related to energy history or U.S. petroleum exploration and production technologies. It wasn’t always so.

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Oil Art of Graham, Texas

Alexandre Hogue and other artists depicted oilfields during the Great Depression.

 

The 1939 “Oil Fields of Graham” mural by Alexandre Hogue is on display in its original Texas oil patch community’s historic U.S. Postal Service building, now a museum.

When President Franklin Roosevelt created public relief projects, including the New Deal Federal Arts Program, Hogue and other artists were commissioned to paint American history on the walls of public buildings.

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Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Thousands of glass-negative images documented the earliest scenes of U.S. petroleum industry.

 

Soon after the first American oil well in August 1859 launched the U.S. petroleum industry in remote northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England began documenting oilfield life among the wooden derricks and engine houses. Photographer John Mather created thousands of historic images and became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

The newcomer to America set up his first studio in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1860. The growing town was an ideal location for documenting the people and evolving drilling technologies of petroleum exploration and production. He would become the new oil and natural gas industry’s premier photographer, amassing more than 20,000 glass plate negatives.

oilfield photographer John Mather self portrait

John A. Mather, probably a circa 1900 self-portrait.

What photographers Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on Civil War battlefields, Mather accomplished in Pennsylvania’s oilfields. He would photograph a famous image of Drake, taken at the original site soon after the first oil well fire of October 7, 1859.

Like Brady, John A. Mather (1829-1915) abandoned one-of-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in favor of wet plate negatives using collodion — a flammable, syrupy mixture also called “nitrocellulose.” With one plate, many paper copies of an image could be printed and sold.

Oilfield photographer John Mather's famous image of Edwin Drake at his oil well

Iconic but often misidentified photo by John A. Mather shows Edwin L. Drake (at right) with a friend standing at the rebuilt derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well of August 1859. An October fire destroyed the originals. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

However, unlike most of the era’s studio photographers, Mather transported his camera and chemicals into the industrial chaos of early Pennsylvania oilfields, where he became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

Like most of western Pennsylvanians, Mather also was susceptible to “oil fever,” and he hoped to drill a few successful wells.

Having narrowly missed the opportunity for a one-sixteenth share of the Sherman Well, which would be “best single strike of the year,” Mather and three associates invested in several wells near Pithole Creek. He proved to be better at using a camera.

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Mather’s investment in exploratory wells at Pithole Creek did not lead to commercial quantities of oil. He tried again on the Holmden Farm off West Pithole Creek. His unsuccessful effort was among the last wells to be drilled at the infamous oil boom town of Pithole.

Years later, Mather acknowledged that excitement of the Pithole drilling boom was so great that he temporarily “forsook photography for the oil business.”

Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio traveled up and down Oil Creek as he produced more than 16,000 glass negatives, later described by the trade magazine Petroleum Age as, “so perfect in finish it stands the test of time.”

oilfield photographer John Mather sitting in his studio

John Mather photographs courtesy Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine and Drake Well Museum, Titusville. Above, the interior of his Titusville studio, circa 1865.

Many tried, but few people in the increasingly crowded oil region would rival the wealth of the celebrated “Coal Oil Johnny.” Meanwhile, the young U.S. petroleum industry would learn some hard lessons, including disasters like the fatal Rouseville oil well fire of 1861. 

Flood and Fire at Oil Creek

On Sunday morning June 5, 1892, and after weeks of rain, Oil Creek’s overflowing Spartansburg Dam failed at about 2:30 a.m. A wall of water and debris swelled towards Titusville and its oil works, seven miles downstream.

“On rushed the mad waters, tearing away bridge after bridge, carrying away horses, homes and people,” one newspaper reported about the flood’s devastation. Then fire erupted from ruptured benzine and oil storage tanks.

oilfield photographer John Mather oilfield images of workers and derricks

Oilfield workers pose on and among their oil derricks and engine houses in this 1864 John Mather photo from the Drake Well Museum collection in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Newspapers all over America carried stories of the disaster. In Montana, the Helena Independent headlines included: “Waters of an Overflowing Creek Become a Rushing Mass of Flames” and victims being, “Spared by the Deluge Only to Become the Prey of the Fire.”

Oilfield photographer John Mather women and children at Pennsylvania oil town.

John Mather’s photographs documented family life in remote early oil boom towns. He also briefly caught “oil fever” and unsuccessfully invested in a few wells in booming Pithole Creek field.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added: “The Waters Subside and The Flames Die Away, Revealing the Full Extent of the Calamity.” Oil City and Titusville were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth.” Mather’s studio flooded to a depth of five feet, destroying expensive equipment and most of his life’s work of prints from glass plate negatives.

photographer John Mather 1892 fire at Oil Creek steam  fire engines

Pennsylvania oil towns were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth” by an 1892 fire and flood that destroyed thousands of Mather’s prints and glass plates. Photo from Drake Well Museum collection.

As the fires and flood continued, Mather set up his camera and photographed the disaster in progress with his bulky equipment, which already was being rendered obsolete by new imaging technologies. 

Just a  few years before the Titusville flood, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced celluloid roll film and created an entirely new market: amateur snapshot photography. Expertise in preparing fragile glass plates and dangerous chemicals were no longer required. Instead, Kodak offered, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

oilfield photographer John Mather  and his floating studio barge

John Mather often used a floating darkroom to capture his historic images along Oil Creek.

As oil booms moved to discoveries in other states, including the massive 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas, Mather worked little in his later years. His financial circumstances diminished with age and illness.

The Artist of Oil Creek died poor and without fanfare on August 23, 1915, in Titusville. His death certificate reported the cause as cerebral hemorrhage, “complicated by suppression of urine.”

Photographer John Mather's Pennsylvania oilfield in 1865

An 1865 John Mather photo of derricks at Pioneer Run – Oil Creek, Pennsylvania.

To preserve John A. Mather’s petroleum industry legacy, the Drake Well Memorial Association would purchase 3,274 surviving glass negatives for about 30 cents each. Today, the Drake Well Museum and surrounding park allow visitors to see rare artifacts and a visual record of the early U.S. oil and natural industry. Visit it and other Pennsylvania petroleum museums.

More Mather Resources

“Virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, and completely unappreciated — in these few words is a description of John Aked Mather, pioneer photographer, whose skill, devotion, and energy endowed the petroleum industry with one of the finest pictorial records of growth and development of any early all-American industry,” proclaimed Ernest C. Miller and T.K.Stratton in their January 1972 article, “Oildon’s Photographic Historian,” in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Volume 55, Number 1).

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“Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions,” explained a NWPaHeritage article by Stephanie David and Brennen French.

The authors of “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio” added that “Mather was In his obsessive desire to capture the industry in its entirety.”

American Oil & Gas Historical Society (supporting members only) original Research Folder.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfield Photographer John Mather.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/oilfield-photographer-john-mather. Last Updated: May 30, 2022. Original Published Date: March 11, 2005.

 

Oilfields of Dreams — Gassers, Oilers, and Drillers Baseball

Company town baseball players sometimes made it to the Big Leagues — and the Hall of Fame.

 

The first pitcher ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Walter “The Big Train” Johnson, worked in California oilfields as a teenager, beginning his famed career on an oil company town baseball team.

As baseball became America’s favorite pastime in the early 20th century, booming oil patch towns nationwide fielded teams with names that reflected their communities’ enthusiasm, and often their livelihood.

Company Town Baseball 

In Texas, the booming petroleum town of Corsicana fielded the Oil Citys — and made baseball history in 1902 with a 51 to 3 drubbing of the Texarkana Casketmakers. Oil Citys catcher Jay Justin Clarke hit eight home runs in eight at bats during the game, still an unbroken baseball record.

Baseball 1924 exhibition game poster featuring Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth

The former pitcher for the Olinda Oil Wells — Walter “The Big Train” Johnson — joined “Babe” Ruth in a 1924 exhibition game. Johnson would be one of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.

In 1922, the Wichita Falls minor league team lost its opportunity for a 25th consecutive victory when the league determined the team had “doctored the baseball.” The Wichita Falls ballpark caught fire in June — during a game — and burned to the ground. It was a memorable season.

In Oklahoma oilfields, the Okmulgee Drillers for the first time in baseball history had two players who combined to hit 100 home runs in a single season of 160 games. First baseman Wilbur “Country” Davis and center fielder Cecil “Stormy” Davis accomplished their home run record in 1924, although their team faded away by 1927.

AA affiliate of oil history related baseball team logo of the Tulsa Drillers.

Today’s Tulsa Drillers play in the Texas League as a AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

The Tulsa Oilers were the strongest team in the Western League for a decade, winning the pennant in 1920, ‘22, ‘27, ‘28 and ‘29. The name continues in the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers. The Tulsa Drillers, a AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, a Major League club, play in downtown Tulsa.

In baseball’s first official night game, the company town baseball team Independence, Kansas, Producers lost to Muskogee Chiefs 13 to 3 on April 28, 1930. The game was played under portable lights supplied by the Negro National League’s famed Kansas City Monarchs.

Welcome sign and oil history exhibit at the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail in California.

“More than 250 producing wells once dotted these hill,” according to the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail near Brea, California.

The Independence Producers were one of the 96 teams in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, now known as Minor League Baseball.

Iola Gasbags and Borger Gassers

Thanks to mid-continent oil and natural gas discoveries, in just nine years beginning in 1895, Iola, Kansas, grew from a town of 1,567 to a city of more than 11,000. Gas wells lighted the way.

However, the Iola Gasbags reportedly adopted their team name not for the resource, but after becoming known as braggers in the Missouri State League. “They traveled to these other cities, and they’d be bragging that they were the champions, so people started giving them the nickname Gasbags,” reported baseball historian Tim Hagerty in a July 2012 National Public Radio interview.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library images of Iola Gasbags players in 1904.

From a booming town in Kansas thanks to natural gas, the Iola Gasbags are pictured in 1904. Company baseball team Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

In 1903, the players renamed themselves the Iola Gaslighters — but had a change of heart and reverted to the original name the following season.

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“They said, ‘You know what? Yeah, we are, We’re the Gasbags.'” added Hagerty, author of Root for the Home Team: Minor League Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Names and the Stories Behind Them. “I think the state of Kansas may take the prize for the most terrific names — the Wichita Wingnuts, the Wichita Izzies, the Hutchinson Salt Packers…and the Iola Gasbags.”

In the Texas Panhandle, the petroleum-related town baseball team Borger Gassers disappeared after the 1955 season, despite Gordon Nell hitting a record-setting 49 homers in 1947. Team owners blamed television and air-conditioning for reducing minor league baseball attendance and profitability.

Detail from 1909 baseball card featuring Pacific Coast League pitcher Jimmy Wiggs.

Detail from 1909 baseball card featuring Pacific Coast League pitcher Jimmy Wiggs. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

In Beaumont, Texas, site of the great Spindletop oil discovery of 1901, minor league baseball lasted for decades under several names. The first team, the Beaumont Oil Gushers of the South Texas League, was fielded in 1903. By the 1904 season the team was known as the Millionaires and then the Oilers before becoming the Beaumont Exporters in 1920.

 Van, Texas, baseball fielding practice at the oil town's high school.

East of Dallas, in Van, Texas, fielding practice at the oil town baseball high school includes a reminder of a prolific oilfield discovered in 1929. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Although many thought the name should be changed to the Refiners, reflecting the city’s industry, for the 1950 season the team was briefly known as the Roughnecks (a former company town baseball team name still popular).

Beaumont’s last AA Texas League team was the Golden Gators, which folded in 1986. Another team in the Texas League, the company town baseball team Shreveport Gassers, on May 8, 1918, played 20 innings against the Fort Worth Panthers before the game was finally declared a tie at one to one.

Walter Johnson  pitches for Olinda Oil Wells

Perhaps baseball’s greatest product from the oilfield was a young man who was a roustabout in the small oil town of Olinda, California. Walter Johnson (1887-1946) would earn national renown as the greatest pitcher of his time. His fastball was legendary.

In 1894, the Union Oil Company of Santa Paula purchased 1,200 acres in northern Orange County for oil development. Four years later the first oil well, Olinda No. 1, came in and created the oil boom town. Soon, the Olinda baseball players began making a name for themselves among the semi-pro teams of the Los Angeles area.

Tabloid "Baseball Scoops" features Walter Johnson pitching 56 scoreless innings in 1913.

A 1961 baseball card notes headline of the former California oilfield roustabout’s amazing 1913 pitching record, which lasted until Don Drysdale pitched 58 scoreless innings in 1968.

By 1903, the Orange County team was sharing newly built Athletic Park in Anaheim, “two hours south of Olinda by horse and buggy,” noted one historian. Youngster Walter Johnson rooted for the local team, the Oil Wells.

Johnson, originally from Humboldt, Kansas, moved to the thriving oil town east of Brea with his family when he was 14. He attended Fullerton Union High School and played baseball there while working in the nearby oilfields. His high school pitching began making headlines, including a 15-inning game against rival Santa Ana High School in 1905 where he struck out 27.

Today, tourists visit the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail. This historic Orange County site includes Olinda Oil Well No. 1 of 1898, the oil company field office and a jack-line pump building.

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By 17, Johnson was playing for his oil town baseball team, the Olinda Oil Wells, as its ace pitcher. He shared in each game’s income of $25, according to Henry Thomas in Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train.

“Not a bad split for nine players considering that a roustabout in the oilfields started at $1.50 a day,” Thomas noted in his book. Johnson finished with a winning season and soon moved on to the minor leagues.

Johnson’s major league career began in 1907 in Washington, D.C., where he played his entire 21-year baseball career for the Washington Senators. The former oil patch roustabout in 2022 remained major league baseball’s all-time career leader in shutouts with 110, second in wins (417) and fourth in complete games (531).

In 1936, “The Big Train” Johnson was inducted into baseball’s newly created Hall of Fame with four others: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson. In 1924, Johnson returned to his California oil patch roots. On October 31, he and his former baseball teammates played an exhibition game in Brea against Babe Ruth and the Ruth All-Stars.

The Brea Museum & Historical Society today includes exhibits, rare photographs, and research facilities. There’s also an on-going project recreating Brea in miniature.

Texon Oilers of the Permian Basin 

On May 28, 1923, a loud roar was heard when the Santa Rita No. 1 well erupted in West Texas. People as far away as Fort Worth traveled to see the well.

Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made the discovery (the school would earn millions of dollars in royalties). The giant oilfield, about 4.5 square miles, revealed the extent of oil reserves in West Texas. Exploration spread in the Permian Basin, still one of the largest U.S. oil-producing regions.

First oil “company town” in the Permian Basin, Texon, baseball team and field.

The first oil “company town” in the Permian Basin, Texon, was founded in 1924 by Big Lake Oil Company. The Texon Oilers won Permian Basin League championships in 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1939. Texon remains a tourist attraction – as a ghost town.

Early Permian Basin discoveries created many boom towns, including Midland, which some would soon refer to as “Little Dallas.”

By 1924, Michael L. Benedum, a successful independent oilman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and other successful independent producers — wildcatters — formed the Big Lake Oil Company. The new company established Texon, the first oil company town in the Permian Basin. Texon residents fielded a company town baseball team.

Today a ghost town, Texon was considered a model oil community. It had a school, church, hospital, theater, golf course, swimming pool – and a semi-pro company baseball team. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Texon Oilers baseball team was the centerpiece of the employee recreation plan of Levi Smith, vice president and general manager of the Big Lake Oil Company. Smith, an avid baseball fan, organized the club soon after he founded the Reagan County town (a few miles west of today’s town of Big Lake).

 The Big Lake oilfield was featured during the beginning of a 2002 movie.

The Permian Basin oilfield was featured in a 2002 movie featuring a high school teacher and baseball coach. Image from Walt Disney Pictures poster.

By the summer of 1925 a baseball field was ready for use. In 1926 a 500-seat grandstand completed the facility. “In 1929 the Big Lake Oil Company began a tradition of hosting a Labor Day barbecue for employees and friends, highlighted by a baseball game,” noted historian Jane Spraggins Wilson.

“Management consistently attempted to schedule well-known clubs, such as the Fort Worth Cats and the Halliburton Oilers of Oklahoma,” added Wilson, who explained that during the Great Depression, “before good highways, television, and other diversions, the team was a source of community cohesiveness, entertainment, and pride.”

After the World War II, with its famous the oilfield diminishing and the town losing population, aging Oilers left the game for good, Wilson reports. By the mid-1950s the Texon Oilers company town baseball team were but a memory.

Hollywood visits Oilfields

The 2002 movie “The Rookie” — filmed almost entirely in the Permian Basin of West Texas — featured a Reagan County High School teacher. Based on the “true life” of baseball pitcher Jimmy Morris, it tells the story of baseball coach, Morris (played by Dennis Quaid), who despite being in his mid-30s briefly makes it to the major leagues.

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The movie, promoted with the phrase, “It’s never too late to believe in your dreams,” begins with a  flashback scene near Big Lake, the Santa Rita No. 1 drilling site.

oil town baseball

At the beginning of the 2002 movie “The Rookie,” Catholic nuns christened the Santa Rita No. 1 cable-tool rig. In reality, one of the well’s owners climbed the derrick and threw rose petals given to him by Catholic women investors.

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. “Much is made of the almost mythic importance of oil in Big Lake, with talk of the Santa Rita oil well,” explained ESPN in the The Rookie in Reel Life

Learn more about the Permian Basin by visiting the Petroleum Museum in Midland.

Company Town Baseball: Oilmen of Whiting, Indiana

In 1889, the Standard Oil Company began construction on its massive, 235-acre refinery in Whiting, Indiana. Today owned by BP, the Whiting refinery is the largest in the United States.

NW Indiana "Oilmen" baseball Indiana team logo.

Whiting has been home to the North-west Indiana Oilmen since 2012.

In 2012, Whiting fielded a baseball team. On June 3, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen crushed the Southland Vikings 14-3 at Oil City Stadium in Standard Diamonds Park for the first win in franchise history. The Oilmen team became one of eight in the Midwest Collegiate League, a pre-minor baseball league.

June-18-Standard-Oil-Refinery-AOGHS

Standard Oil’s giant refinery in Whiting, Indiana, processed “sour crude” in the early 1900s. Now owned by BP, it is the largest U.S. refinery. The city of Whiting incorporated in 1903.

“The name Oil City Stadium celebrates Whiting’s history as a refinery town tucked away in the Northwest corner of Indiana for over 120 years,” noted team owner Don Popravak about the oil company town baseball. “The BP Refinery, located just beyond they outfield fence is a constant reminder of the blue collar attitude Whiting was built on,” he added.

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Recommended Reading:  Textile League Baseball: South Carolina’s Mill Teams, 1880-1955 (2004). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfields of Dreams – Gassers, Oilers, and Drillers Baseball.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/oil-town-baseball. Last Updated: May 2, 2022. Original Published Date: September 1, 2007.

 

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