the early days of oil exploration, that peculiar creature of the oil
field known as the wildcatter embodied a walking contradiction between
science and faith, between due diligence and a reckless gamble. A
wildcatter drilled on intuition as much or more than hard scientific
knowledge. The risks were great, the potential rewards even greater.
Edgar B. Davis, who wildcatted his way into one of the biggest oil
deals in the Southwest in the 1920s, embodied this contradiction.
Davis was a devout Christian who believed in reincarnation and a shrewd
capitalist who gave most of his millions away, a man devoted to scientific
principles who looked for oil based on nothing more than good vibes
and abiding faith.
In those early days, Caldwell
County attracted wildcatters like carrion attracts buzzards. Morris
O. Rayor, a petroleum engineer, geologist and spiritualist-all good
traits for a wildcatter - brought a medium from Detroit to Luling
around 1914 to hold sťances in hopes that the dead might assist the
living -specifically him-in finding oil in and around Luling.
Luling also drew the attention
of Edgar Cayce, the famed clairvoyant who for a time operated the
Cayce Petroleum Company out of Cleburne.
In a trance, Cayce spoke in solemn detail about the underground oil
structure in Luling. Davis
met with Cayce a couple of times, but we don't know how much faith
he put in Cayce's vision.
What we do know is that Davis hit it big in Caldwell
County, opening up an oil field that was 12 miles long and two
miles wide. The Luling Field would produce more than 100 million barrels
of oil over the next 25 years. In 1926, Davis sold his leases to the
Magnolia Petroleum Company for $12 million.
With another fortune made (he also made millions in the shoe business
and as an investor in foreign rubber plantations) Davis set about
giving away as much of the money as he could.
"I may go broke again but it looks as though I would have the fun
of giving away several million dollars before I do so," he said. He
was, one observer noted, one of the few share-the-wealth advocates
who actually practiced what he preached.
In June of 1926, with another fortune recently made, Davis held a
now legendary picnic on the San Marcos River south of Luling
that drew at least 15,000 people, according to the most conservative
estimates. Others put the number at closer to 40,000 people. The old
wildcatter announced bonuses of more than $3 million for his employees
and said he was dedicating another million for a model farm for agriculture
research to benefit farmers in Caldwell,
Gonzales and Guadalupe
Counties. That was the beginning of the Luling Foundation Farm, which
celebrates its 93rd anniversary this year.
Later in his life Davis would award large cash prizes to artists for
their depictions of wildflowers, including a "Texas only" category
in order to share the natural beauty of his adopted state. Later,
he spent more than $1 million to keep a Broadway play called "The
Ladder" in production, despite universally savage reviews. The play,
written by a close friend of his, was about reincarnation.
Davis continued to wildcat, with periodic success, but he was essentially
broke by the end of his life. His home state of Massachusetts took
what was left of his fortune after he died to pay a disputed tax bill
to a state he quit claiming as home soon after he came to Texas.
Davis had relied heavily on scientific investigation in his other
endeavors but he rarely consulted geologists or engineers when sinking
millions of dollars into a prospective oil field, relying instead
on intuition and hunches. More often than not, he ignored the advice
of geologists before sinking wells.
Davis' biographer Riley Froh noted the inconsistency in Edgar B.
Davis: Wildcatter Extraordinary. "The contradiction between his
increasing insistence that science be applied to the tillage of the
soil and his own decreasing reliance on scientific advice for finding
oil provides a dichotomy that Davis never cared to explain," Froh
wrote. "He had made a reputation with the largest rubber company in
the world by a stern devotion to the application of expert knowledge
and technological skill, and he invested a million dollars in trying
to establish this precedent in Texas.
"Curiously, he continually discounted geology and petroleum engineering
in his quest for oil and contradictorily expended a fortune on whims
and hunches. In short, he became the extreme of wildcatters, one of
the 'greatest gamblers,' one who chanced all in reckless abandon in
search of a dream."
It's fitting, considering Davis' contradictory life and times, that
perhaps the two most significant and lasting impacts of his legacy
is the discovery of a massive oil field that he developed against
the advice of scientists, and a model farm devoted to scientific inquiry.
For a wildcatter like Davis, it all made perfect sense.