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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Santa Rita No. 1 and the Inevitable

by Clay Coppedge

One of the things we love about the Texas oil boom of the early 20th century was how unlikely—even impossible—it all seemed at the time, but how inevitable it actually was. After all, the oil had been there for millions of years but nobody paid much attention to it until the discovery of the Spindletop oil field in 1901 ignited the Texas oil boom. Until then, Spindletop was considered a long shot, something on the order of winning the lottery.

So was Santa Rita No. 1, which came two decades after Spindletop and was much smaller, but the little rig that could opened up the West Texas oilfields just as Spindletop had done in Southeast Texas. Oil scouts and geologists had never thought much of West Texas as a potential oilfield, but when some of the original fields began drying up a few wildcatters and gamblers cast their eyes westward, just in case.

Texon, TX, Reagan County Santa Rita Rig No1
The well-preserved remains of Santa Rita #1 in Texon (about 3 /10 mile south of Hwy 67 on FM 1657).
Photo courtesy Dustin Martin, January 2018

Rupert Ricker was one of those people. He began buying up leases around his hometown of Big Lake, out in the high scrub country of Reagan County, in 1919. As a lawyer, he was familiar with a 1917 law that allowed the leasing of state lands for oil exploration, so he and some friends applied for leases on 431,360 acres in Reagan, Upton, Irion and Crockett counties on land belonging to the University of Texas.

Ricker owed the state $43,136 for the leases and he had 30 days to pay. He tried to promote the land in Fort Worth but failed to arouse much interest, so he sold the leases for $2,500 to an old army friend, Frank T. Pickrell of El Paso, and his partner Haymon Krupp. Pickrell borrowed money to cover the filing fee and went to New York to woo investors.

Among the investors was a group of Catholic women. Some silver-tongued stock salesmen had already persuaded them to invest in the certificates, and they did, but the women soon suffered a case of buyer's remorse. They consulted a priest, who suggested they invoke the help of Santa Rita, the church's Patroness of Impossible Causes.

"These women were a little worried about the wisdom of their investment and consulted with a priest," Pickrell recalled in a 1969 interview. "As I was leaving New York on one of my trips to the field, two of these women handed me a sealed envelope and told me that the envelope contained a red rose that had been blessed by the priest in the name of the saint. The women asked me to take the rose back to Texas with me—to climb to the top of the derrick and scatter the rose petals, which by then were dry, over the rig and to say, 'I hereby christen thee Santa Rita.' I faithfully followed those instructions."

A few hours prior to a deadline to begin drilling, driller Carl Cromwell cranked up Santa Rita No. 1. Pickrell flagged down two cowboys on the highway and had them sign a statement saying they saw the rig in operation one day prior to the deadline. A two-man crew of driller Cromwell and tool dresser Dee Locklin lived at the site, near the tracks of the Orient Railroad, and went to work.

It didn't go well. Problems were many, workers were few, paychecks were late, and tools were scarce. The Santa Rita No. 1 rig was down about the same amount of time it was up and running, and even then managed little more than four feet a day.

Then things started going a whole lot better.

On May 27, 1923, after drilling into dolomitic sands some 3,000 feet down, gas bubbles began escaping from the casing head. Cromwell and Locklin shut the well down and began buying mineral rights in the area while prices were still low. Even without any more drilling, the well came in the next day, spewing oil for 250 yards in every direction. Cromwell and Locklin never developed any of the leases but later sold them at a considerable profit.

Pickrell and Krupp now had a viable well but they didn't have enough capital to develop the acreage under their control. Independent oilman Mike Benedum, a flamboyant wildcatter from Pennsylvania, came to the rescue. He formed the Big Lake Oil Company and began developing the field. The major oil companies soon joined the fray. The well turned out to be a tiny portion of the oil buried in the Permian Basin, and it made the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, which received a third of the university's land royalties, the best funded public educational institutions in the country. They're still pumping oil out of the Permian Basin.

The Marathon Oil Company replaced the original Santa Rita No. 1 in 1940 with an all-steel pulling derrick and more modern equipment. The original equipment was preserved through the efforts of the Texas State Historical Association, and in the 1950s the original Santa Rita No. 1 was installed on the UT campus in recognition of its importance to education in the state.

Back in Reagan County, the revamped Santa Rita No. 1 continued pumping until 1990 when, after 67 years of service, it was taken out of service and plugged.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" January 5, 2024 column

Related Stories:

  • Spindletop When Oil Became An Industry by Archie P. McDonald, PhD

  • Spindletop: Selling Wind and Hot Air by Michael Barr

  • The Long Gone Texon Oilers by Clay Coppedge

  • Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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