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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Edgar Davis:
Visionary Wildcatter

by Clay Coppedge

In 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.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 16 , 2020 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of Bobby Morrow 6-10-20
  • The Phantom Booth 5-17-20
  • Trailing Texas Fever 4-16-20
  • Roy Bean's Bad News Bear 3-15-20

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