Oil Scouts – Oil Patch Detectives

Once called night riders of the hemlocks, petroleum sleuths separated oil well fact from fiction.

 

In the hard winter of 1888, 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen succumbed to pneumonia — contracted while investigating oil production from a well in densely wooded hills near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

McMullen, publisher of the Bradford “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a journalist and oilfield detective.

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Moncrief makes East Texas History

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

 

When a Fort Worth independent producer drilled a January 1931 wildcat well in East Texas, he revealed the true extent of an oilfield discovered months earlier and many miles away.

W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well on January 26, 1931. The Gregg County 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, this third well — far from two earlier discoveries — revealed what proved to be a giant oilfield, extending dozens of miles.

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 independent 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.

The third East Texas well was completed 25 miles north of Rusk County’s already famous October 1930 Daisy Bradford No. 3 well drilled by Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner northwest of Henderson (and southeast New London, site of a tragic 1937 school explosion).

Moncrief’s oil discovery came 15 miles north of the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well, drilled three days after Christmas, on “Mama” Crim’s farm about nine miles from the Joiner well.

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

Three Wells, One Giant Oilfield

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 single petroleum-producing field — the largest ever found.

As a drilling boom exploded, further development revealed the “Black Giant” East Texas oilfield stretching 42 miles long and four to eight miles wide.

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The region’s unique history is exhibited at the East Texas Oil Museum, which opened in 1980 at Kilgore College.  Joe White, the founding director who retired in 2014,  created a museum that houses the “authentic recreation of the oil discoveries 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.

The family exploration business established by 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 lighted and neon lights.

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 in Oklahoma

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” after initiation into the Sigma Chi fraternity.

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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 (AOGHS) 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 © 2024 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 18, 2024. Original Published Date: January 25, 2015.

 

Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry

Giant Texas oilfield discovery in 1901 coincided with gasoline demand for automobiles.

 

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

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

Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters

Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field in 1930 stood silent for one hour in tribute to Tom Slick.

 

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” wildcatter Thomas B. 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.

The owner of Spurlock Petroleum Company, Alexander Massey, enjoyed great success in the Kansas oilfields after finding oil or natural gas in 25 consecutive wells. In 1904, 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. They went to Tryon, Oklahoma, to look for oil.

Derricks at the capitol building in the Oklahoma City oilfield in the 1930s.

When Oklahoma’s “King of the Wildcatters” Thomas B. Slick suddenly died from a stroke at age 46 in 1930, the oil derricks in the Oklahoma City field stood silent for one hour in tribute. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

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.”

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Spurlock Petroleum Company spudded an exploratory well on the farm of M.C. Teegarden near Tryon. As Slick continued securing leases that eventually totaled more than 27,000 acres, drilling generated excitement in the local newspaper and with other Oklahoma wildcatters. 

Portrait of oil wildcatter Thomas Slick, circa 1920.

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick” by many, on March 12, 1912, Thomas B. Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield.

However, at a depth of 2,800 feet with no signs of oil, Spurlock Petroleum and owner Massey ran out of money. Tom Slick’s first well was a dry hole. It was the first of many.

Dry Hole Slick

In 1907, after another dry hole near Kendrick, Oklahoma, Slick left the employ of Massey and headed for Chicago, Illinois. 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, the young oilman drilled at least ten dry holes in Oklahoma, earning his unenviable nickname, “Dry Hole Slick.”

Range and township oil well lease maps

An example of township leases similar to those negotiated by Tom Slick, from the Atlas of North Central Oklahoma 1917 Oil Fields and Landowners: Oklahoma, M. P. Burke, 1917.

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, publications 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,” the newspaper reported on January 25.

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“It costs from $8,000 to $10,000 to put down a single hole,” the newspaper noted. “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.

Knowing that exploration companies and speculators would descend in droves on the town once word got out, Slick protected his investment. Just how he did so would be 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.

Pump stations in Cushing, Oklahoma, where Tom Slick made oil discoveries.

Pump stations in the Cushing oilfield, 1910-1918, from the Oklahoma Historical Society. More than 50 refineries once operated in the Cushing area about 50 miles west of Tulsa. Pipelines and storage facilities have since made it “the pipeline crossroads of the world.”

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.

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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.”

New 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.

The Drumright, Oklahoma., historical society's museum at the historic Santa Fe Depot.

Oklahoma’s Drumright Historical Society Museum includes the town’s 1915 Santa Fe Railroad Depot, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Slick was suddenly a very rich man. After his dramatic success in Drumright and Cushing, he began an incredible 18-year streak of discoveries in some of the nation’s most prolific oilfields. Visit the Drumright Historical Society Museum.

Slick was active in the Seminole Area, especially the oilfields of Pioneer, Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole. He  secured leases and drilled wells that consistently paid off.

Slick’s oil 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).

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Reflecting on his fortunes late in his career, he 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.”

Wildcatters and Ford Model Ts crowd a muddy main street in Seminole, Oklahoma

Newly discovered oilfields of the mid-1920s brought prosperity — and traffic jams — to Seminole, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy the Oklahoma Oil Museum.

Slick’s leases in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas produced millions of barrels of oil. Production from his wells reached 35,000 barrels of oil a by 1929, and he was proclaimed the largest independent oil operator in the United States with a net worth estimated from $35 million and up to $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.”

Portrait of wildcatter tom slick at outdoor plaza

Thomas B. Slick is among those honored at an outdoor plaza at the Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, in Norman.

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,” reported the Oklahoma Historical Society. Slick’s biggest strike came a week after he died when his Campbell No. 1 well in Oklahoma City produced 43,200 barrels of oil per day.

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Stories about the “King of the Wildcatters” and his oilfield discoveries would spread across the Mid-Continent. Thomas B. Slick, — no longer known as “Mad Tom” or “Dry Hole Slick” — joined other Oklahoma petroleum industry leaders honored at the Conoco Oil Pioneers of Oklahoma Plaza.

By the end of the 20th century, more than one-half million Oklahoma oil and natural gas wells were drilled since an oilfield discovery at Bartlesville in 1897 (learn more in First Oklahoma Oil Well). 

More about Slick and his extraordinary oilfield career can be found 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.

In 1933, 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.

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Recommended Reading:  King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930. (2004); The Oklahoma City Oil Field in Pictures (2005); The Oklahoma Petroleum Industry (1980). 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 (AOGHS) 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. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/wildcatter-tom-slick. Last Updated: December 30, 2023. Original Published Date: December 1, 2004.

   

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 Michigan oil 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’s farm in East Texas confirmed existence of largest oilfield in the lower-48 states.

 

Some people said a gypsy told Malcolm Crim he would discover oil in East Texas three days after Christmas. Others claimed it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman. 

On December 28, 1930, the exploratory well Lou Della Crim No. 1 began producing an astonishing 20,000 barrels of oil a day. Even then, few appreciated the true significance of the Rusk County well drilled by Mrs. Crim’s eldest son, Malcolm.

Wearing a shawl, the widow Lou Della Crim sits in front of her prolific oil wells at her East Texas farm, circa 1935.

“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. Everyone at first thought a second East Texas oilfield had been found.

In October, the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well of Columbus “Dad” Joiner had disproved experts who claimed East Texas contained no oil. Yet the distance between these discoveries convinced geologists — and major petroleum exploration companies — that the wells had found separate oilfields. 

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.

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