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Oil Patch Memories

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Shortly after Christmas in 1917, geologist Ed Owen received instructions from his employer to move from Oklahoma to Mineral Wells.

With a master’s degree from the University of Missouri, Owen had been dispatched to the nation’s hottest oil field to apply his newly acquired knowledge of strata, anticlines and faults in reading what lay beneath the earth by observing features visible aboveground.

Ranger, a once quiet railroad town on the Texas & Pacific, lay at the epicenter of the new boom area. But neither Ranger nor any of the other towns in Eastland or Stephens counties could handle the sudden and overwhelming influx of people interested in black gold.

Mineral Wells was temporarily an oil town in January 1918 by virtue of being the nearest city with adequate accommodations,” Owen later wrote for his posthumously published 1987 memoir, “The Flavor of Ed Owen – A Geologist Looks Back.” He continued: “Geologists and landmen were scattered throughout Central Texas as far west as Abilene and from Brownwood northward beyond Graham, but the several small towns had limited facilities, so everybody came into Mineral Wells as often as possible.”

Even so, Mineral Wells became the “capital city” of the oil patch without becoming an oil town.

“It continued primarily as a resort where people came to ‘boil out’ in its mineral water and drink the horrid stuff, and the white-collar contingent of oil men added only a livelier catalyst,” Owen wrote in prose as opinionated as the valuable proprietary information that the Greenwood Oil Company paid him to produce.

Mineral water made Mineral Wells, but the new oil play gave the city more energy than a traveling salesmen convention. The Crazy Wells Hotel teemed with oil men on their way to or from the fields.

On Saturday nights, the hotel hosted a dance in its lobby. The oil men staying at the Crazy Wells, Owen added dryly, “added some luster” to that weekly event. As did the soon-to-be-illegal booze sold at bargain prices on the eve of national prohibition by panicky Fort Worth saloon keepers trying to unload their stock while they could.

But the nation had an additional thirst in 1918. The world war then under way, Owen wrote, “had created an insatiable demand for petroleum, and recent discoveries made this the most exciting district in the United States.”

Much of the oil gushing from the ground around Ranger ended up as gasoline in the tanks of the ever-increasing number of automobiles in Texas and the rest of the nation.

Though trains carried boomers to Mineral Wells and Ranger, they headed for the oil patch in trucks and Model T’s. Travel by motor vehicle was not too difficult at first – as long as the unpaved roads stayed dry. However, most heavy equipment still moved by wagon, and in addition to crowding the roadways, the wagons left ruts and horses made deep tracks. All that made for challenging vehicular travel.

“Only J.J. McGowan could get an automobile past one of the wagon trains,” Owen wrote. “He was a big man who had been a London policeman before coming to the Empire as a geologist. He whipped enough teamsters to become known as a man who was entitled to half the road.”

While horses and mules played havoc with the roads, two-legged creatures also impeded transportation. The canyon-crossed road between Ranger and Strawn, with plenty of ranch gates to slow travelers and high ground for lookout points, became particularly popular with hijackers.

A joke popular at the time told of a gunman holding up an oil worker who had $6 in his wallet. After counting the money, the hijacker returned $3 to his victim.

“Why’d you do that?” the surprised roughneck asked.

“‘Because my brother’s robbing people down the road, and he’ll kill you if you don’t have any money,” the kind-hearted highwayman replied.

Having completed his geological survey, Owen decided to serve his country. He quit his job on May 1, 1918 and sought without success to get into officer’s candidate school. Then he tried to enlist but got turned down over his eyesight and weight.

Owen got his old job back, but ended up getting drafted that summer. He went through basic training, but the war ended before he could be shipped overseas and he returned to the still-booming oil business.

He spent the rest of his long career in petroleum geology, serving as a special lecturer at the University of Texas from 1952 to 1970. He died in San Antonio in 1981 at 85.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
December 22, 2007 column
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