everyone immediately struck it rich during the West
Texas oil booms of the first couple of decades of the 20th century. |
|Aptly named cable
too driller Wiliam Wells left his wife and kids in Oklahoma and headed
for the Lone Star State in the latter days of World
War One. |
“Texas was booming and I wanted to go there,” he later wrote
in his 1977 self-published memoir, “Wild Bill the Driller.”
quickly found that traveling could be as hard as trying to make a buck in the
oil patch. Most highways remained rough and unpaved, which is why the majority
of people preferred to go from town
to town by train. But Wells had
a new Model T he’d paid $650 for and headed south in that. Another driller rode
with him. |
From Lawton, OK, they made it to the Wichita County oil metropolis
of Burkburnett in a long day
of driving. Rigs studded the landscape, but Wells didn’t want to stop there. “That
was rotary country, and we were cable tool drillers,” he wrote.
Even so, Wells
was smart enough to know that rotary drilling was the future of oil production,
so he found work on a rotary rig to learn the trade.
Meanwhile, the owner of the company Wells worked for took a fancy to his employee’s
new Ford and offered him $850 for it. Wells decided to take the $200 profit and
sent the money back to his wife, along with some other money he’d earned drilling.
After the well in Burkburnett
came in, Wells and his partner decided to go to Ranger,
in Eastland County, and look for work there. They spent their last night in
Wichita Falls the day the news hit that an armistice had ended the fighting
in what folks then referred to as the Great War.
Wichita Falls, they rode by train to Fort
Worth for a connection to Ranger.
Boarding a Texas and Pacific train bound for the new boom town, they soon found
the railroad wasn’t in as big a hurry to get to Ranger
as they were.
train came to a little town and stopped,” he wrote. “Everybody, crew and passengers,
got off, ate unhurriedly, returned to the train, and we went on to Ranger….”
Wells walked from the busy depot to the town’s biggest hotel, the McCleskey. But
the hotel had no vacancies.
At the moment needing something to eat worse
than a bed, Wells went to a restaurant and spent $5 on a meal ticket that would
guarantee him 21 meals. With 20 meals left to go, he found the place where he’d
been told he could get a room – a building where patients had been kept to suffer
and die during the recently ended 1918 flu epidemic. When the epidemic ran its
course, the place had been converted into a rooming house to accommodate working
“The furnishing were simple,” Wells wrote, “a three-quarter bed,
slop jar [“indoor plumping” of the era], wash basin and a pitcher. The landlady
asked if I wanted a fire, and I said, ‘Yes.’ But all she had was a little oil
stove for which she wanted $1.50 a week.”
Wells opted to get along without
a heater, and then hit the hay for the night.
The next morning he woke
up to find his first night in Ranger
had been decidedly unprofitable. Not only was he out the cost of his train ticket,
his meal ticket and stove-less room, at some point during the night someone had
slipped in his unlocked room and stolen three or four silver dollars from his
trousers. Fortunately, the thief missed a $20 bill he had in his vest pocket.
Wells got a job on a well north of town, but when the owner turned out to be a
heavy drinker he found a job with a friend who had recently come to the hot Ranger
field. He left the boarding house in town and rented a place in the country that
was more camp than boarding house, but he liked the new driller he was working
with and was at least making some money.
With Christmas approaching, Wells
headed home for the holidays. But leaving Ranger
took about as long as it had to get to Ranger
. Finally, after an 18-hour wait, he made it on to a troop train for Fort
Worth. He traveled back to Ranger
after spending some time with his family, but he missed home and soon moved back
Eastland County hadn’t made him rich, but by the end of his
career, he had become successful enough as an independent oil producer to laugh
about those silver dollars he lost in Ranger.
"Texas Tales" February
3, 2011 column
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