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