Moncrief makes East Texas History

Former Marland Oil executive confounded geologists, launched lengthy career as independent producer.

 

When Fort Worth wildcatter W.A. “Monty” Moncrief drilled a well in East Texas in January 1931, he revealed the true extent of an oilfield discovered months earlier miles away.

On January 26, 1931, in Gregg County, Fort Worth independent oilman W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well. The well produced 320 barrels of oil per hour (7,680 barrels a day) from a depth of 3,587 feet. As the Great Depression worsened and East Texas farmers struggled to survive, the third wildcat well miles from two earlier discoveries proved the existence of a giant oilfield.

Moncrief, who had worked for Marland Oil Company in Fort Worth after returning from World War I, drilled in an area few geologists thought petroleum production a possibility. He and fellow oil operators John Ferrell and Eddie Showers thought otherwise.

W.A. "Monty" Moncrief and his son "Tex" in Fort Worth's Moncrief Building.

A circa 1960 photograph of W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and his son “Tex” in Fort Worth’s Moncrief Building.

Moncrief’s well was 25 miles north of Rusk County’s already famous October 1930 Daisy Bradford No. 3 well drilled by Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. The Moncrief discovery well was 15 miles north of the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well drilled near Kilgore three days after Christmas.

At first, the distances between these “wildcat” discoveries convinced geologists, petroleum engineers (and experts at the large oil companies) the wildcat wells were small, separate oilfields. They were wrong.

Three Wells, One Big Oilfield

However, to the delight of other independent producers and many small, struggling  farmers, Moncrief’s Lathrop discovery showed that the three wells were part of  a massive oil-producing field — the largest ever at the time. As a drilling boom exploded, further development revealed the “Black Giant” East Texas oilfield stretching 42 miles long and four to eight miles wide.

The region’s unique history is exhibited at the East Texas Oil Museum, which opened in 1980. Founding director Joe White, who retired in 2014, notes museum at Kilgore College “houses the authentic recreation of oil discovery and production in the early 1930s in the largest oilfield inside U.S. boundaries.”

After more than half a century of major discoveries, William Alvin “Monty” Moncrief died in 1986. His legacy has extended beyond his good fortune in East Texas.

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The family exploration business established by “Monty” Moncrief  in 1929 would be led by sons W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. and C.B. “Charlie” Moncrief, who grew up in the exploration business. In 2010, Forbes reported that 94-year-old “Tex” made “perhaps the biggest find of his life” by discovering an offshore field of about six trillion cubic feet of gas.

Moncrief Philanthropy

Hospitals in communities near the senior Moncrief’s nationwide discoveries, including a giant oilfield in Jay, Florida, revealed in 1970, and another in Louisiana, have benefited from his drilling acumen.

Map of 30,000-acre East Texas oilfield.

The 130,000-acre East Texas oilfield became the largest in the contiguous United States in 1930.

Moncrief and his wife established the William A. and Elizabeth B. Moncrief Foundation and the Moncrief Radiation Center in Fort Worth, as well as the Moncrief Annex of the All Saints hospital. Buildings in their honor have been erected at Texas Christian University, All Saints School, and Fort Worth Country Day School.

Dr. Daniel Podolsky in 2013 presents W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. with a framed image of the new Moncrief Cancer Institute.

Dr. Daniel Podolsky in 2013 presented W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. with a framed image of the new Moncrief Cancer Institute at the Fort Worth facility’s dedication ceremony.

Supported throughout the 1960s and 1970s by the Moncrief family, Fort Worth’s original Cancer Center, known as the Radiation Center, was founded in 1958 as one of the nation’s first community radiation facilities. 

In 2013, the $22 million Moncrief Cancer Institute was dedicated during a ceremony attended by “Tex” Moncrief Jr. “One man’s vision for a place that would make life better for cancer survivors is now a reality in Fort Worth,” noted one reporter at the dedication of the 3.4-acre facility at 400 W. Magnolia Avenue.

Images and map of Kilgore, Texas, with oil derricks.

Small investments from hopeful Texas farmers will bring historic results — and make Kilgore, Longview and Tyler boom towns during the Great Depression. Kilgore today celebrates its petroleum heritage.

Early Days

Born in Sulphur Springs, Texas, on August 25, 1895, Moncrief grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, where his family moved when he was five. Checotah was the town where Moncrief attended high school, taking typing and shorthand — and excelling to the point that he became a court reporter in Eufaula, Oklahoma.

To get an education, Moncrief saved $150 to enroll at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, where he worked in the registrar’s office. He became “Monty” Moncrief after initiation into the Sigma Chi fraternity. During World War I, Moncrief volunteered and joined the U.S. Cavalry. He was sent to officer training camp in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he met, and six months later married, Mary Elizabeth Bright on May 28, 1918.

Although sent to France, Moncrief saw no combat. The Armistice was signed before his battalion got to the front.

After the war, Moncrief returned to Oklahoma where he found work at Marland Oil, first in its accounting department and later in its land office. When Marland opened offices in Fort Worth in the late 1920s, Moncrief was promoted to vice president for the new division. 

In 1929, Moncrief would strike out on his own as an independent operator. He teamed up with John Ferrell and Eddie Showers, and they bought leases where they ultimately drilled the successful F.K. Lathrop No. 1 well, which turned out to be the northernmost extension of the 130,000-acre East Texas field, largest ever in the lower-48 states.

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Recommended Reading: The Black Giant: A History of the East Texas Oil Field and Oil Industry Skulduggery & Trivia (2003); Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); 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 supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Moncrief makes East Texas History.” Authors: B.A. and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/moncrief-oil. Last Updated: January 25, 2022. Original Published Date: January 25, 2015.

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Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry

A giant 1901 Texas oilfield discovery came as automobiles brought demand for gasoline.

 

On January 10, 1901, the “Lucas Gusher” on a small hill in Texas revealed the Spindletop oilfield, which would soon produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.

Although the great Galveston hurricane of 1899 (still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history) brought misery to much of southeastern Texas, as the 20th century dawned, an oil discovery three miles south of Beaumont launched the modern oil and natural gas industry.

Famous picture of Spindletop gusher of 1901.

The January 10, 1901, “Lucas Gusher” was the first U.S. well to produce 100,000 barrels of oil per day. At right, Anthony F. Lucas stands by his well in this widely circulated photo by Frank Trost of Port Arthur, Texas.

“Dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher,’ the oil discovery on Spindletop Hill changed the economy of Texas and helped to usher in the petroleum age,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum

Drilled by Curt Hamill, Capt. Anthony Lucas, and two experienced Pennsylvania oilmen, the well erupted oil for nine days before it could be brought under control with the technology of the time.

spindletop museum water gusher demonstration

Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas, tells the story of the 1901 oilfield that helped make the United States a world power. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Beaumont’s oil museum, dedicated at Lamar University in 1976, preserves the giant field’s history with hundreds of indoor and outdoor exhibits — including a 16-building replica of Gladys City and a 100-foot derrick that can gush a column of water for two minutes.

Museum tours led by volunteer docents explain how drilling at a geologic salt dome created an oil boom far exceeding America’s first oil discovery in 1859 in Pennsylvania. The discovery at Spindletop Hill in Texas arrived at a key time for the U.S. petroleum industry.

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As consumers replaced their kerosene lamps in favor of electricity, they would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product, gasoline for their automobiles (the first U.S. auto show took place in New York City two months before the Spindletop gusher).

Petroleum companies would toon be pumping gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country, especially as roads improved with asphalt paving the way. (more…)

Michigan’s Golden Gulch of Oil

It took awhile, but the 1957 well drilled on Mrs. Houseknecht’s dairy farm found a giant oilfield.

 

An exploratory well in southern Michigan had been drilled on and off for almost two years before revealing the state’s only giant oilfield in January 1957. The discovery at “Rattlesnake Gulch” on Ferne Houseknecht’s dairy farm tapped a petroleum-rich basin that extended dozens of miles.

The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield is the stuff of dreams, according to Michigan historian and author Jack R. Westbrook. The state’s first oilfield, the Saginaw field, was found in 1925 and another field was discovered three years later, but there would be decades of “dry holes” before Mrs. Houseknecht convinced her uncle to finish drilling the well on her farm. (more…)

Lou Della Crim Revealed

Oil discovery on widow Crim’s East Texas farm confirmed existence of largest oilfield in the lower-48 states.

 

Some claimed a gypsy told Malcolm Crim he would discover oil in East Texas three days after Christmas. Others said it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman. On December 28, 1930, the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well began producing  20,000 barrels of oil every day. Few appreciated the true significance of the Rusk County well drilled by Mrs. Crim’s eldest son.

Wearing a shawl, the widow Lou Della Crim sits in front of her East Texas oil wells.

“Mrs. Lou Della Crim sits on the porch of her house and contemplates the three producing wells in her front yard,” notes the caption of this undated photograph about the wells that followed the historic 1930 discovery on her farm. Image courtesy Caleb Pirtle.

The region’s latest oil discovery brought headlines in Dallas newspapers, especially since Mrs. Crim’s well was about nine miles north of an earlier oil gusher on another widow’s farm. At first, everyone thought a second East Texas oilfield had been found. 

Malcolm Crim stands by his discovery oil well on his mother's East Texas farm.

Malcolm Crim stands at site of his famous 1930 East Texas oil well, the Lou Della Crim No. 1, named after his mother.

(more…)

Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory

Businesswoman prospered in booming turn-of-century Pennsylvania oilfields.

 

In 1899, Mary Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” prospered in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield. Mrs. Alford’s nitroglycerin factory cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin every day.

The 85,000-acre Bradford oilfield in in north-central McKean County, Pennsylvania, and south-central Cattaraugus County, New York, remains an important part of U.S. petroleum heritage.  There are many reasons, including Mary Alford’s pioneering oilfield career at the turn of the century.

“A light golden amber to a deep moss-green in color, the ‘miracle molecule ‘ from the Bradford field is high in paraffin and considered one of the highest grade natural lubricant crude oils in the world,” according to the Penn-Brad Oil Museum (and historical park).

Mrs. Aldord's nitro factory newspaper article from 1899.

Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum Director Sherri Schulze in 2005 exhibited a laminated (though wrinkled) page from a newspaper published in 1899. “This was done by a student many years ago,” she said. “It was a school project done by one of Mrs. Alford’s descendants.”

(more…)

Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”

Lucky life of John Washington Steele of the Pennsylvania Oilfields.

His good fortune started on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant.

Johnny Steele – who one day would become famous as “Coal Oil Johnny” – was adopted along with his sister, Permelia. The McClintocks brought them home to their farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Fifteen years later, the petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s 1859 oil discovery, at nearby Titusville – America’s first commercial oil well – made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties. When Mrs. McClintock died in a kitchen fire in 1864, she left the money to her only surviving child, Johnny. At age 20, he inherited $24,500.

Coal Oil Johnny
John Washington Steele of Venango County, Pennsylvania, inherited oil riches.

Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day. “Coal Oil Johnny” Steele would earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported. “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”

Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of  his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:

I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.‎

Coal Oil Johnny
“Coal Oil Johnny” illustration from a 2010 Atlantic magazine article.

Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.

In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story. It describes the country’s fascination with the earliest economic booms brought by “black gold” discoveries in Pennsylvania.

“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 18 feature story. “Johnny owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors.

“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age – and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”

Coal Oil Johnny
Refurbished boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny” at Oil Creek State Park (and train station) north of Rouseville, Pennsylvania.

For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted the magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.

It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”

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“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” added the article.

Coal Oil Johnny
John Washington Steele died in Nebraska in 1920.

“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded. “Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”

John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.

On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing McClintock No. 1 oil well. “This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”

Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was published in 1902.

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Recommended Reading: The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny (2007); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania, Images of America (2000); Western Pennsylvania’s Oil Heritage (2008). 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 supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/legend-of-coal-oil-johnny. Last Updated: December 6 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.

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