The well had been "pinched down" a few days after it came in, but ten days later it was roaring so loudly that people thought another gasser had come in. Even deaf people could hear the well "as it rumbles ceaselessly through the night." Experts were brought in to cap the flow of oil and gas and water. Dr. Busey said that when he began drilling the well he felt that others drilling to find oil had "not gone deep enough. I determined to play site on that point, and as a result I went too deep. I set casing at 1,900 feet; drilled to 2,262 feet and then ran a liner down from the bottom of my casing." When the well came in, it flowed "a mixture of salt water, sand, gas and oil that was so badly cut up and emulsified that oil men for a time were mystified at the peculiar salve like substance. . . ."
I. F. Neville of Houston, Texas, and his partner Harry R. Decker were among those brought in to control the well. Decker finally capped it. He later held patents on many oil well drilling devices. Thousands of barrels of fluid were "caught in earth tanks," but it had to be treated before it was "of commercial value." The well had blown wild for about fifteen days when "water began to appear and the fluid turned to a brownish color." Efforts to control this were unsuccessful and the "water increased rapidly until the oil and gas were completely choked off." The well had a productive life of only about forty-five days. At the end of April 1921, under the direction of E. E. Winger, of the state conservation commission, and J. A. Brake, state oil and gas inspector, the well was abandoned. The bottom was cleaned out and with "the hole full of water," ninety sacks of cement were placed on the bottom with a dump bailer.
"Old Busey" might be abandoned, but she was never forgotten. Cafes still featured "Busey well steaks" on their menus at $1.50, saying, "It's some steak." Everything for years would be measured by the well, a new well was "located within five-eighths of a mile of the Busey well or five miles from it." The baby's age and the time of day are gauged by events of the Busey well." Mitchell and Busey dissolved their partnership ("Bonham seems to be lost in the shuffle") and the property was divided. After "certain money payments" were made, Busey kept the corporation and fifty of the eighty acres, including the site of the well. On August 13, 1921, he sold this and all his holdings in Union county to the Southern Oil and Land Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, for an undisclosed price. He kept his holdings in Drew County, which he acquired after his famous well came in, and on May 6, 1921, he incorporated the Busey Oil Corporation with holdings of 12,000 acres of leases near Monticello. F. H. Busey, a brother of Dr. Busey and a retired landowner in Illinois, was vice president of this corporation.
By August 1921 there were five refineries and three pipe lines operating near El Dorado. Abner Davis from Texas was the first to operate refinery. As early as April his plant was refining 200 barrels of crude oil a day and a filling station in El Dorado was selling El Dorado gasoline. At the end of the summer of 1921 more than 275 wells had been completed within a fifteen mile radius of the city and only twenty-five were listed as dry holes or salt-water wells. Crude oil was selling at seventy cents a barrel. Along with the production went immense waste. The state conservation department was concerned and issued orders to try and help save the oil and the field.
J. A. Brake, now with the state conservation department, announced that "all wells will be located 200 feet from the lease line and spaced 400 feet apart on the lease." This was not always done. Oil was being stored in vast earthen tanks and the waste from evaporation alone was great.
People continued to pour into El Dorado. Chief of Police Hamp S. Lewis, hired more policemen to cope with the rising crime rate. A full-time health officer was appointed, and two nurses and two sanitary officers were hired to help him. The city water supply had to be increased, and Harvey C. Couch, president of Arkansas Power and Light Company came to the city to work out the arrangements. Something to do after dark was a problem, too. Men congregated on street corners in the evening to "talk oil" and some would break off into a quartet and the strains of "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding," "How Dry I Am," "Mary," and "That Old Pal of Mine," could be heard.
Monroe's String Band, whose members were "all sons of Ham," as the correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat so uniquely put it, entertained nightly at a local cafe. E. C. Robertson, who owned the Victory Theater in Fayetteville, came to El Dorado and opened a motion picture and vaudeville theater. Boxing matches were arranged and on February 3, 1921, Little Rock's own "Red Herring" and Patsy McMahon of Memphis "occupied the center of the sports arena." Jack Parsons, the "dean of Arkansas showmen," had a tent theater a block and a half from the square that presented shows nightly and eventually offered road shows on a regular basis.
Three months after the Busey well came in work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town which would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides, and concessions. Culture was not forgotten and an "old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium."
Galli-Curci and John McCormack sang there. It was so cold in the place when McCormack sang that he stopped his concert and left the stage to put on an overcoat, turning up the collar, then returned and finished his performance. Being so near the tracks caused Jascha Heifetz to stop playing and leave the stage until a switch engine finished moving cars.
The Little Rock Board of Commerce established a branch office in El Dorado just a few days after the Busey well came in. Its announced purpose was to help El Dorado in any way possible and to nurture a "Spirit of cooperation between the two cities." Little Rock only wanted the business El Dorado was unable to handle, the board's executive secretary stated. The branch office wanted to "help keep Arkansas business in Arkansas." This was a veiled reference to the brisk competition between Little Rock and Shreveport to see who could get the most of the "business El Dorado couldn't handle." The board maintained an office in El Dorado until May 31, 1921.
On March 7, 1921, more excitement hit El Dorado. Caddo Central Oil and Refining Company's Roger's No. I well in Section 31, Township 17 South, Range 15 West, blew in at the rate of 20,000,000 to 25,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day. The six-inch casing had been lowered into the hole and the crew was preparing to pour cement when with a tremendous roar that could be heard for miles the well came in. The pressure, established to be 1,100 pounds to the square inch, blew out the cement and the casing swung loose in the hole. C. N. "Red" Cheshire, field superintendent for the Caddo Central Company, took charge of operations to try to bring the well under control and preparations were about concluded, when on the afternoon of March 11, lightning struck the well and set it afire.
A great column of gas became a roaring volcano. It was late in the afternoon and the rain had brought an early darkness. A mile and a half away the public square in El Dorado became suddenly alight. . . . The tip of the flame was more than 200 feet high and was visible for more than thirty miles away.
In El Dorado, a mile away, townspeople plugged their ears with cotton sealed with chewing gum to ease the pain from the constant roar, and houses shook from the tremor in the earth.
W. E. Rogers, who owned the land on which the well stood, had moved his family from their farmhouse when the well first came in. The fire burned his home and outbuildings. The derrick burned, of course, and the "great lengths of drill stem and other machinery collapsed in a tangled mass."
While preparations to put out the fire were going on, supervised by Cheshire and C. P. Clayton, vice president of Caddo Central, efforts were made to keep it from spreading. Guards were placed around the well to keep sightseers from getting too close: trees were cut down in a wide circle and the ground plowed up. Wells that were drilling in the area were "shut in." Finally, on March 20, with the use of twenty boilers, the fire was extinguished by "smothering it with steam." Troubles continued to plague the well, however, and it was not until April 4 that all escaping gas was shut off. Because of all the complications, the well cost $80,000, but it turned into an oil well, with good production.
A meeting of independent oil operators was held on March 22, 1921, and they organized the Arkansas Independent Oil Producers Association with more than one hundred members. The organization had rough going, with three separate factions soon fighting for control.
One faction, backed by C. D. Kavanaugh of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Association, of which Gus Fulk was president, had brought a representative from the Mid-Continent Association. The original idea of the meeting had been to organize a purely local organization to fight El Dorado's problems, but Ike Felsenthal of the Home Oil and Gas Company made a motion to appoint a committee to form an organization patterned after Mid-Continent's, and his motion was adopted.
Not only were the producers quarreling, but the quarrel between the Business Men's League, El Dorado's newest commercial organization, arid the Chamber of Commerce continued despite efforts by the Rotary Club to get the two organizations to combine and pool their efforts.
As prosperity increased in Union County, more and more people came to El Dorado. Not all who arrived had legitimate business interests at heart, arid crimes became more numerous. Alan Hancock, who had replaced Finn Craig as sheriff of Union County, and his deputies became hard pressed. When the small county jail proved to be too inadequate for the containment of criminals arrested by him and his men, a large "circus-type" cage was set up in the courthouse yard. Still later a barbed-wire stockade was erected in the back yard of the courthouse. Guards were on duty, and at night the stockade was lighted. In bad weather the yard prisoners were placed in leg irons and kept at the Missouri Pacific depot under guard. Together the local jail and stockade had a total capacity of seventy-five.
To keep down the jail population, Judge W. D. Hall held municipal court each day, and attempted to decrease the jail numbers through heavy fines. The prosecuting attorney for the thirteenth district, Arthur D. Pope, whose home was in Magnolia, spent most of his time in El Dorado. Since Police Chief Hamp Lewis clamped down against gambling and "immoral women" in the city limits, many of the trouble spots moved outside of town.
Two of the most troublesome spots outside of El Dorado's corporate limits were Shotgun Valley and Pistol Hill. Pistol Hill was located near the Busey well, and it consisted of about fifteen places. Shotgun Valley was located by the El Dorado & Wesson Railroad near that railroad's crossing on tile south road to Magnolia. It included about thirty places which were scattered throughout the valley. Both had twenty-five-cent-dancing, gambling, prostitution, and alcoholic beverages. By 1921 standards, such a combination of entertainment made up what was known as "a barrel house." The name came from the habit of some bartenders, "after a 'drunk' had run out of money, of putting him in a barrel and rolling him out of the place." This type of establishment was erected solely "for the interest of gentlemen and 'ladies of the evening' were usually present." Bootleg whiskey, choc beer, and fighting, were present in abundance.
Some of the better known places of the oil fields in Union County, still remembered to this day, were Dago Red's, Smackover Sal's, Dutch's Place, Jake's Place, Big Casino, Cattle Gap, Barrel House Blues, and Blue Moon. Dutch had a barrel house chain, while Jake had a mobile type of operation which moved to wherever there was the most activity. A great many barrel houses could also be found about seven miles from El Dorado down the Rock Island tracks at Upland. The ladies of these and other establishments usually identified themselves to police officers and to the courts as seamstresses or stenographers.
Moonshine sold at $1.25 for a six-ounce Coke bottle full. Dance music was generally provided by a three-piece group, consisting of mandolin, guitar, and fiddle, but sometimes a nickel-fed player piano had to do.
Dubious characters of all sorts made such places there headquarters. People such as Two-Shot Blondie, who imported prostitutes and made moonshine deliveries. Smiling Jack sold dope. Two brothers, Oscar and Joe, ran moonshine operations at various spots in Union County, but their best whiskey came from stills located in Calhoun County. The bestremembered of these characters was Silver Top. He and his followers had worked in the Blackburnett, Texas, field before coming to Union County, and he had served a jail term there. He has been described as a man of average height with prematurely gray hair, in his mid twenties, and addicted to narcotics. Every mysterious murder or unsolved robbery was attributed to him or his colleagues. Big Ed was the strong arm man for the gang. Mothers warned their children to hurry home or Silver Top would get them. It seemed inevitable that he would eventually go to prison for his alleged deeds, but his murdered corpse was found one day on the Smackover highway. The authorities later determined that he had been murdered elsewhere, but his killers were never found.. Since his next of kin could not be found, County Coroner Tom E. Barton buried Silvertop in Potter's Field.
On May 24, 1921, the first well inside the city limits of El Dorado that produced oil came in. It was the Knott, Bain & Bowler's Nash No. 1 on the L. M. Nash tract in Section 29, Township 17 South, Range 15 West. (49)
The city's revenues for one month were now more than the revenue from licenses and fines for the entire year of 1920. In 1920, the average monthly amount of fines was $347.30. For March 1921 alone it was $5,913,60. (50) Just about the time the boom hit, the city was finishing a new city hall. The second floor had been intended for an auditorium, but these plans changed after the Busey well came in, and Mayor Smith fitted the second floor up as offices and rented them for $1,000 a month. With the money the city hall was completely paid for within two years. Most of the increased revenues went for the ever- growing demands for services by the city. Smith announced in May that "two men and seven teams" were needed to "take care of the garbage," and thirteen men were added to the police department, which had only three before the boom. Another new fire engine was bought, bringing the total to three which the city now owned.
The forty-one-year-old Frank Smith was a popular man in El Dorado. He had been a resident of the city for fourteen years before taking office as mayor in January 1921. He was a veteran of the Spanish American War, the Mexican border campaign, and World War I, in which he had risen to the rank of captain, and was after the war active in the American Legion. Having been reared in Oklahoma in the days of the early oil development in that state, Smith was familiar with the ways of oil men. He asked Major Sam D. Crawford, his old comrade and World War commander, to help him with his administrative duties. As sanitary officer, Crawford issued an order that all of the operators of stands and stalls on "Hamburger Row" would have to vacate the premises on or before June 30, 1921. This colorful place, only in existence a few months, was doomed. In a few months no trace could be seen where it had existed.
In May 1922 the scene of action in Union County's oil boom shifted to the area around the peaceful little farm and timber village of Norphlet, eight miles due north of El Dorado, where wildcatting had begun. About eight o'clock in the evening of May 14th, the discovery well in the famous Smackover Field, Murphy No. 1, owned by the Oil Operators Trust, came roaring in (in Section 8, Township 16 South, Range 15 West) with an estimated sixty- five to seventy-five million cubic feet of gas a day. The tremendous force of the gas demolished the derrick, blew out the string of drill stem, and sent the drilling crew scampering for their lives. Balls of hard-packed red sand went sailing through the air, and the roar of escaping gas was so deafening, that drilling crews a quarter mile away had to plug their ears. Murphy No. 1's crew worked frantically to save the steam boiler and drilling rig, but were unsuccessful as the ground caved in and swallowed it up. The gigantic blowout was a fitting opening passage for the story of Smackover Field, which "gave to petroleum one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the industry."
By the morning, of the 15th craters had begun appearing around the well, and by nightfall of that day half a dozen of them were afire from the friction caused by the rapidly escaping gas. Then, early on the morning of May 16th, the "giant gasser" itself caught on fire and flames "shot more than 300 feet into the air." "Black smoke and slate- colored dust" boiled even higher. The great crater at the center ate into the many small craters about it, consumed them, and grew even larger, forming "a miniature Grand Canyon." Finally, after burning for seven hours, the fire extinguished itself when the mighty hole in the earth began to "spurt gas only at intervals."
But even after the flames went out, the huge crater continued to erupt, spouting immense quantities of gas and sand high above its rim. The boiler from the drilling rig, which had toppled into the monstrous hole, could be seen at the bottom during these periodic gas eruptions spinning like a top."
Estimates of the size of the crater formed by the ill-fated Murphy No. I vary, but it was at least 450 feet across and fifty to seventy-five feet deep. A man who flew over it , while it was still active, trying to gauge its size, reported that sand blown from the crater hit him in the face at 7,000 feet. This sand was in reality "pulverized shale," and it settled to earth as far away as ten miles in every direction. "Vesuvius," as the crater was sometimes called, caught fire again several times, but always burned itself out. It was said to have been one of the largest gas wells ever drilled in the world.
On June 21, 1922, the Oil Operators Trust completed another well on the Murphy lease, a quarter of a mile south of No. 1, which came in throwing sand and fresh water 100 feet over the derrick. One reason for drilling No. 2, was the hope it might weaken the first well, but in that respect it was unsuccessful. On June 28, No. 1 ignited for the fourth time. A crater formed at well No. 2, and while it never reached the proportions of the No. 1 well, the two became known as Crater No. 1 and Crater No. 2. By July 9th Crater No. 1 was still making a great cloud of black smoke which was "said to be caused by lignite coal burning." Crater No. 2 was a "mud volcano" shooting mud high into the air at intervals. It also caught fire at times. A Gazette reporter, after viewing the Murphy well No. 1, described it as "one of the natural wonders of Arkansas." Tourists came in throngs over log roads to view it. Refreshment stands appeared at the site to vend drinks, sandwiches, and ice cream. To this day the crater is still visited by sightseers.
Both of the disastrous Murphy wells in Union County had been gassers. But the discovery well for oil in the Smackover Field came that summer of 1922 with completion of Richardson No. 1 in Section 29, Township 15 South, Range 15 West, of Ouachita County. Owned by the V. K. and F. Drilling Company it was brought in on July 25th. Residents of Ouachita County, who had been drilling and hoping for oil for fifteen years and had spent over a million dollars searching, now had a commercial producer in the cut-over lands and clay hills along Smackover Creek just north of the Union County line. The Smackover Field lay in both Union and Ouachita counties, with Smackover Creek forming part of the southern boundary between them. The town of Smackover itself is in Union County, fourteen miles north northwest of El Dorado, and the Missouri Pacific Railroad running diagonally across the Smackover Field, divides the Norphlet District to the east from the Louann to the west, while both districts lie astride the Union-Ouachita county line.
When Richardson No. 1 came in on Charles Richardson's land in Ouachita County four miles north of Smackover, a field greater than that of the El Dorado Field was discovered. Several residents of Camden were among those who had never given up hope of discovering oil in the area. They were J. C. Usery, a druggist, T. J. Gaughan, an attorney, W. W. Brown, president of the Ouachita Valley Bank, and J. D. Reynolds. Sid Umsted of Smackover had also had faith that oil would be found in the area. As a sawmill operator, he owned a large tract of land northeast of Smackover, the site today of the Ouachita County community of Standard Umsted.
Umsted had been trying for years to get someone to drill a test well, and had made many trips to Shreveport to get oil men interested. Near his land at the community of Snow Hill, in southeast Ouachita County, two wells later came in in which a Negro church held interest. The church's congregation soon closed its doors to any new members, and only allowed its regular assembly to remain within the realm of the church.
Prior to the discovery of the Smackover Field, there were about one hundred residents of Smackover, the "little village on the banks of Smackover Creek." By October 1st there were 2,000 people and by November, 5,000. The rate of growth was slower after the discovery of oil in the Smackover Field than in the El Dorado Field because of the low price of crude oil, the general depression caused by a railroad strike, and the slowness of construction of pipelines which meant there was no way to get the oil to market. But eventually over twenty thousand people invaded the community. Smackover had been a flag station on the Missouri-Pacific railroad and its depot had been a box car where station agent A. W. Friend used kerosene lamps for light. There were three general stores in the town. J. E. "Jet" Murphy owned one, John Young, Jr., owned another, and the McDonald brothers, Fred and Dee, owned the third. Fred was postmaster and the post office was located in the store.
Smackover was incapable of taking care of these thousands
of people, but the citizens, went to work to try.
A new station and freight yard were built, but freight and passenger traffic continued to increase. Railroad yards were being installed, but not fast enough to handle the increased activity between Little Rock and Smackover. Most of the storage, tracks or sidings between the two cities were filled with freight cars earmarked for Smackover.
Other than St. Louis, Missouri, the town had more freight receipts than any station on the Missouri Pacific line. Since the railroads were unable to cope with this increased activity, it became necessary for them to place an embargo on shipments destined for Smackover until adequate sidings could be added to handle the freight flow. Besides trains headed for Smackover, others were departing her yards for the big cities. Many of these trains were bound for the large industrial refineries. At one time it was estimated that an oil train would leave the town every thirty minutes for the Midwest refineries.
The telegrapher's key at the Missouri Pacific station in Smackover was the fastest means of communication to the outside at the opening of the boom. Soon, however, Western Union arrived to serve the town. Telephonic communication came when John Carter, El Dorado manager of Southwestern Bell, had a line extended from El Dorado to Shorty Temple's Pool & Domino Parlor, where a toll phone accommodated the public. When his place was overrun with telephone users, Temple in self-defense, opened Smackover's first telephone exchange.
The delivery of mail was another communication problem for the town. It became such a responsibility for the local postmaster, Fred McDonald, that he sent a telegram to the postal officials in Washington, D. C. It read: "Office out of my control, letters arriving 5,000 to 7,000 a day; parcel post by the ton; accept my resignation." Shortly thereafter, postal officials arrived to help McDonald, and he remained as postmaster for a while longer.
As happened in El Dorado, law enforcement became a major problem. Tom Gray, the city constable, and his two deputies needed help. Local residents felt that if Smackover was incorporated, taxes could be levied, peace officers could be hired, and the proposed town would be beneficial to all.
A twenty-year-old student at Henderson Brown College, Clyde Byrd, was home for a visit with his parents, Dr. and Mrs. William H. Byrd of Smackover, and was dabbling in the lumber business when he became involved in the organization of the proposed town. He, along with J. E. Murphy and Sid Umsted, appeared before the county judge, L. S. Britt, in El Dorado on September 30, 1922, as representatives of twenty- five petitioners to incorporate Smackover. Britt approved the legal instrument, and Smackover was officially born on November 3, 1922.
Finding officials to govern the new town was a problem since most of the original petitioners refused to hold any public office. Even Byrd planned to go back to college when the town leaders asked him to be the first city clerk. He declined, but agreed to compromise. The agreement finally reached stipulated that Byrd would return to school in Arkadelphia, but his name would appear on the town records as the city clerk. With this pact, Smackover began to function as a town. Governor Thomas Chipman McRae appointed J. E. Murphy as interim mayor until an election could be held. Although by this time there were almost 6,000 people in Smackover, only about 35 were eligible voters. A. W. Friend, the former Missouri Pacific station agent, was elected the first mayor. Friend, however, became overburdened with the heavy work load. He soon relinquished his post to Clayton C. Taylor, who in turn passed the office on to T. G. Hurley. Byrd was making plans to return to college when he received word that Mayor Hurley had departed Smackover.
Under state law, the city clerk became the mayor and served as city judge. The stunned Byrd, who had only become twenty-one on October 19th assumed office.
By Christmas Smackover had a population of 20,000 people, and the countryside was dotted with derricks. It was now a full-fledged boom town with the youngest mayor in the United States. The new mayor faced most of the same problems as Frank Smith had faced in El Dorado in the early days of the boom in that city, but Byrd did not have the experience and maturity in a long-established municipality as did Smith.
As Smackover's mayor, Byrd got initiated early into business of levying fines in his capacity as municipal judge. Although badly frightened at first, he tried to keep his dignity in his early days on the city bench. In his first case, an officer laid six revolvers on Byrd's courtroom desk, which had been emptied by six men at each other the previous night while they were intoxicated. The stern-looking but inwardly frightened mayor gave each of them the maximum penalty. It was this type of case that was typical of Byrd's court. Some fines ranged as high as a thousand dollars. Since property could not be taxed for another year, excessive fines and occupation taxes became the fastest means of gathering the much-needed revenue. Another source of revenue came from railroad passengers who failed to pay their fare. As the number of crowded trains arriving in Smackover increased daily, railroad agents began to ride in the passenger coaches to arrest violators. Byrd handled many such cases.
Tom Gray did a good job as constable under the circumstances. He served seventeen years as a peace officer, wearing two guns during the boom era. He retired without having killed or beaten any person. In addition to Gray and his two deputy constables, five other peace officers were added to the local crime fighters. A former El Dorado deputy, Bussey Jones, became the chief of police.
Prior to his service in Smackover, Jones had tried to keep the peace at Pistol Hill. While there, he was shot by an alleged assassin, but managed to put three bullets in his assailant while falling. He never enjoyed good health after this, but recovered enough to report for duty in Smackover. Although his job was full time and difficult, he performed it well. Jones and his force made up what was sometimes known as the Smackover Mounted Police, each officer was horse borne to traverse the mud. Blondie Powers and Pat Greening were two of Jones's better known officers.
Prostitution and gambling and other vices were a big problem. These centered in "Death Valley," an unsavory district of barrel houses located east of the Missouri Pacific tracks. Oil field doves that lived in the shoddy barrel houses by night would by day rent horses at a dollar an hour and ride forth to sell their favors to the drilling crews in the field. Revolvers were carried openly, and fights and killings were common. Roughnecks in town with pockets full of money and itching to live it up were suckers for the taking, even though they were warned about Death Valley: "Don't ever go there at night. If you must go, take four or five men with you, and be well armed."
By April 1922, over a year after the Busey well, the El Dorado Field had produced approximately 15,500,000 barrels of oil or a daily average of 32,400 barrels. There were nine refineries with "a combined output of 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day." During the summer and fall of 1922 while Smackover was organizing its municipality, El Dorado had already completed its first city reorganization. Although estimates of the city's population in this period ranged from 30,000 to 50,000 people, the question confronting the city was how many of these boomers were regular bona fide residents and how many were transients.
A November 1921 special census revealed that 16,000 people were bona fide citizens and shortly thereafter Governor McRae declared the town a city of the first class. Because of the large volume of mail going in and out of El Dorado, the post office had been given a first class rating on July 1922. A new city administration had taken charge of affairs on April 10, 1922, when Crawford P. McHenry, a real estate man, became mayor, G. E. Black, chief of police, and Brown Culp, assistant chief. The new administration initiated several improvements, one of which was twelve miles of paving in the city.
Meanwhile the continuing oil activity in the northern half of Union County and the southern part of Ouachita County had created a busy artery of traffic between El Dorado and Smackover and Camden. Since most oil field employers could not accommodate their workers with food and lodging they had to stay elsewhere. As a result, transporting labor to and from the oil fields posed a big problem. The railroads solved this by establishing passenger-commuter services, which ran from to the oil field areas from Norphlet, Smackover, and El Dorado. A petroleum worker could live in one place and catch a daily train to the oil fields. The El Dorado & Wesson ran trains to Oil Hill, where the Constantin and Standard Oil companies were located; to Morgan and on to Newell, this latter place being better known as Kinard's Crossing. The Missouri Pacific ran two trains daily from El Dorado to Louann with stops at O'Rears, Gulfdorado, Norphlet, Kenova, Smackover, and Griffin. The Rock Island carried passengers bound for Cargile, Smith, Lamberton, Upland, and Catesville, turning around at Cornie in the South Field for a return trip. During the boom days of the field twelve coaches and three conductors per train were required. (70)
The automobile grew in popularity, also, as a means of transportation in the oil fields. Yet the automobile was useless if Mathis Mill Creek near El Dorado and Holmes Creek near Smackover were flooded. It sometimes took as long as three hours to negotiate the fifteen mile mud, water, and sand route. But since the automobile was now replacing the horse and buggy, livery stable owners at El Dorado began to put in "jitney" services to Smackover and other outlying places. The jitney, the forerunner of the bus and taxicab, was either a small bus or automobile that transported passengers for a fare. Between El Dorado and Smackover the fare charged was $10 for a one-way trip. By August 1922 a bus line between Camden and El Dorado, making four trips per day, had been established.
An automobile trip from El Dorado to Smackover was a perilous as well as an expensive undertaking. The following account is based on the memory of a man who frequently traveled it .
Leaving town on two-rutted road, we proceeded north. About two miles out we had to ford Mathis Mill Creek if it was not too high. On the way, the road became impassible for various reasons. Often mud holes were too deep to negotiate. Many times these were "man made" with picks, shovels, fresno slips, and plenty of water hauled in from nearby creeks and wells. Each of these artificial obstructions had a by-pass toll route around it, and by paying fifteen cents or more a car was allowed to use it. After getting past a series of these mud holes and by-passes, we hit a long stretch of sandy road about three or four miles from Smackover known as Primm's Lane. If the sand was wet, it was like pavement; if not, such things as cars would sink axle deep in the bottomless sand. Several teams of mules were stationed along this stretch, and they could be rented for $1.00 to give assistance to any cars stuck in the sand.
The coming of the balloon tire, in 1924 and 1925, made driving Primm's Lane more economical. By letting most of the air out of his tires, a driver could get enough traction to cross the stretch of sand. But, then, when one reached Holmes Creek south Of Smackover, he had to hand-pump them up again to continue. "In one instance," remembered two old timers, "an oil operator left El Dorado for Smackover with $32.00 in his pocket. With towing fees so high, he went broke about a mile short of his destination and . . . had to abandon his car."
Oil country roads, many of them toll roads, were notoriously bad. Roads into the old fields often had to be cleared through forests. The logs were split into four "rails" and used for corduroy, known locally as "Arkansas gravel." Oxen and mules, which, were used to move the heavy steam boilers and drilling rigs and to negotiate the muddy streets and roads, often bogged down and drowned or suffocated in the bottomless mud holes before they could be extricated. South Washington and adjacent streets in El Dorado took a heavy toll of livestock in the early days. Near where the present City Hall stands was a plank toll road that charged large fees for vehicles attempting to pull muddy Northeast Avenue Hill. Along this particular bad spot, one observer remembers seeing in one rainy spell eight trapped mules buried so deeply in the mud that only their heads above the surface. The conditions on Front Street in Smackover were as bad or worse. A team, wagon, and a load of lumber were completely lost there as just one example of how bad the situation was.
Mule Skinner's Corner, at the intersection of Hillsboro and Washington streets in El Dorado, was a place where all heavy hauling was contracted and perhaps was the worst mud hole of all. It took the greatest toll of mules. Mule skinners and mules were an essential part of the early oil industry everywhere and especially in the muddy fields of south Arkansas. Oxen were already present in the timber industry of South Arkansas, but most of the mules were shipped in from Kansas City, from Fort Smith, and other places in the Midwest and South. So badly were they needed, both oxen and mules were exempted from the embargo to Smackover. Good mules sold in the oil fields of Arkansas for anywhere from $200 to $300 and so-called "plugs" for $40. Teams included as many as twelve mules or oxen. One mule skinner was needed for every eight animals. A typical team consisted of a driver, a helper, and three skinners. To rent a four-team mule cost $15 a day and the driver got $5.
One of the most colorful group of people to be found in the oil boom areas of south Arkansas were the oil promoters. Many of these gentlemen were sincere in their efforts, but others could be classified as con artists. Some of these promoters bought small leases and sold shares to the gullible public at $10, $100, or $1,000 a share, promising enormous returns in a matter of weeks. Some promoters actually brought in gushers, but left them uncapped as a show to excite investors. Unattended, these wells would eventually be ruined by salt water and immense quantities of oil were wasted as a result of these get-rich-quick schemes. One of the first promoters in El Dorado was Abner Davis, who started the first refinery, he later sold to Lion Oil Refining Company. Pat Marr, the present-day Texas millionaire, was another well-remembered promoter in south Arkansas.
He ran full-page advertisements with large headlines that read: "I Must Do One of Three Things: (1) Drill Two 5,000 Barrel Gushers, or, (2) Pay Every Unitholder His Money Back, or, (3) Go to the United States Prison!" Subheadings read: "This is Positively the Greatest and Most Certain Dividend Paying Opportunity the Investors of America Have Ever Had." "What a Man Soweth, That Shall He Also Reap." "Fortune If I'm Right; Money Back If I'm Wrong." Marr was a man of his word, and he even did more than he promised. He brought in several gushers and paid back his investors, but he was hard pressed to stave off a federal conviction. Jimmy Cox, another promoter, had offices in El Dorado and a larger one in Stephens which occupied a two-story building. The El Dorado post office refused to take his promotional material, so Cox, a former flyer, flew to Fort Worth, Texas, to mail it. He was indicted for misuse of the United States mails.
Much oil promoting was done by phone. The daily ritual of some promoters was to go by their mail boxes, to pick up their loads of mail, then go to the El Dorado telephone office to make their long distance calls. With the receiver propped up by the ear and their hands free while talking, mail would be opened. Letters and envelopes would be thrown in the wastebaskets, and greenbacks would be neatly stacked in front of the promoter while he talked. This was also a familiar scene in offices and in the backs of stores.
No story of the boom would be complete without mention of Haroldson Lafayette ("H. L.") Hunt. He has been described as a gambler, oil promoter, and producer, who practiced all three occupations in south Arkansas in the 1920's. Hunt quit school in the fourth or fifth grade and left his farm home near Vandalia, Illinois.
He was on his own from that time on. He worked on ranches in North and South Dakota and California, and in the lumber camps of Arizona. He was in the gold rush in Alaska. In 1911 he came to Chicot County, Arkansas, and on "January 30, 1912, bought a forty-acre farm from Edward McDowell five miles west of Lake Village for $1,050." He often came into town and relaxed around the Lake Shore Hotel "playing poker and mule-trading," He married Miss Lydia Bunker, daughter of a respected Lake Village family. Sometime during this period Hunt must have moved to Lake Village, for two of his children were born in a cottage near the hotel. After the Busey strike, Hunt caught a train at Montrose, Arkansas, and came to El Dorado with fifty borrowed dollars. He operated a gambling room on South Washington Street, where the tables paid well, and he prospered. If a local bank received a hot check taken from his game, they had only to call him and Hunt would arrive at the bank with the cash to make it good.
It was during this time that Hunt met Alvin "Titanic" Thompson, a well-known gambler and expert golfer. Thompson had resided in Little Rock and Hot Springs at one time, and was reputed to have Eastern gang connections. He was so well known for his various activities that John Lardner, son of the famous humorist Ring Lardner, recorded a number of stories about him. Thompson came to El Dorado and fleeced several of the best local golfers on the greens, beat all comers in pistol target shooting, and opened up a bookmaking establishment. Hunt placed a large bet with Thompson, and won, forcing "Titanic" to write his contacts for pay-off funds. As a result of this unexpected loss, Thompson, an expert at cards, dice, or anything of chance, asked Hunt if he would be honorable enough to allow him the opportunity to win back at least part of the money. Thompson agreed to let Hunt name the game.
Hunt sent back word that he would certainly afford Thompson the needed opportunity, and checkers would be the game. The game would have to be delayed, however, while Hunt and others gave testimony at federal court in Monroe, Louisiana, regarding an El Dorado car theft ring. This delay gave Thompson time to buy a checker board and practice. At Monroe, the witnesses played checkers to pass the time, and Hunt always won easily. Hunt revealed during a conversation that he was not only considered the checker champion of Chicot County, but of several states as well. Thompson, hearing this news, departed El Dorado.
To develop a lease in the South Field near El Dorado that he had won in a poker game, Hunt needed $50,000. He got some of it through the usual promotional methods, but to obtain the rest he took a train to Lake Village and borrowed from his acquaintances there amounts ranging from $200 to $2,000. This enabled him to drill on his lease, where he hit a gusher, a lucky strike that was soon followed by others on leases he obtained in the Smackover Field. He paid back the Lake Village loans, divided the proceeds with his investors, and paid his drilling crews so well that he quickly earned their devotion. It was a matter of pride with his drilling crews that they referred to themselves as "Hunt Men."
In 1924 he moved his family from a little bungalow in El Dorado to a new three-story mansion on a lot that covered a city block. There he lived until 1930 when he moved to Texas. He left Arkansas deeply in debt. The depression had hit and oil prices were low. He struck oil again, however, in Van Zandt County of East Texas. He and his family lived in Tyler from 1931 to 1937, when they moved to Dallas.
If the boom years of 1921 and 1922 were years of mushroom growth and unsteadiness for the towns of south Arkansas, the years of 1923 and 1924 brought a period of stabilization. Newly-created towns with their organized governments helped make this possible. The Norphlet community, for example, was quite unique in this respect because most of its population were newcomers. Only a few natives were listed among the forty-two petitioners for incorporation in 1924. Three young men among the petitioners led the movement. They were Bob Williams, a tall, lanky, likable fellow, new to Norphlet and seemingly knowledgeable of law enforcement; R. P. Dillehunty, a mercantile store owner who went on to found the town's first bank, and Ennis B. Sutherlin, who had sold his cafe and store near Mansfield, Louisiana, and had started shipping horses and cattle to Norphlet. He took up residence in the town and stayed to open a grocery store.
The Norphlet newcomers, led by Williams, set out in 1924 to achieve incorporation for the thickly settled area. They hired lawyer Pat McNalley to represent them in the Court of Union County, where they found themselves opposed by lawyers representing three oil companies--- Gulf, Higgins, and Federal. McNulley was successful, nevertheless, and County Judge George S. Tatum decided in favor of incorporation, with articles to that effect filed with the secretary of state's office on October 27, 1924. Officers of the new town were Sutherlin as mayor, Dillehunty as head of the city council, and Williams as city marshal.
Williams enjoyed good relations with the local courts and attorneys, and he kept good order. Sutherlin had never seen Williams prior to the boom, but word had reached him from the Naborton, Louisiana, oil area to keep an eye on Williams because he was suspected of having committed a crime in that area.
The first big event for the town was the arrival of one lonely gravel car, whose contents were to be used for Norphlet's street improvements. When the town fathers gathered for a picture in front of the car, they noticed that Williams was reluctant to take part in the event. After much coaxing, he finally agreed to pose, but before the picture was shot, he pulled his hat over his eyes. Shortly thereafter, he left Norphlet to join the Kilgore, Texas, police force. It was later revealed that Williams was an alumnus of Oklahoma's Starr Gang, well experienced in bank holdups. He died while resisting arrest from the Texas Rangers after taking part in a bank robbery at Pelican, Louisiana. Regardless of Williams's character, his leadership coupled with that of the other town fathers, helped bring prosperity to Norphlet. By 1926 the community had built a new school, and had one of the best school districts in the state.
Clyde Bird continued to do good work for the town of Smackover. He paved some streets, corrected the water situation, and built a sewer system. He was later elected a state senator. An independent school district was created out of the town of Smackover, and bonds were issued for the first school building. B. W. Barnes, who had published a newspaper in Haynesville, Louisiana, started the Smackover Oil Journal. W. A. McKenzie, who had sold the timber from his land around Smackover years before and had tried to sell his land for $5 an acre, but could find no buyers, now had forty derricks going up on his land. His son, Hugh, had been running teams for a drilling contractor in El Dorado and was now selling leases on his land for $200,000. W. A. McKenzie erected two churches in Smackover, the Missionary Baptist Memorial and the Memorial Presbyterian, both brick edifices, to show his gratitude for his new-found prosperity.
In late 1922, however, law enforcement was still a serious problem in and around Smackover, even with the efforts of Toni Gray and Bussey Jones, and others. On the afternoon of November 27 a group of men, estimated variously from one to two hundred strong, paraded the streets of the town following an outbreak of murders and other crimes. The men warned that "lawlessness must stop." The men were dressed white robes, but the Ku Klux Klan denied that they had anything to do with the group. It was felt that most of the men were oil field workers, who were tired of the lawlessness of some of their own kind, and of others. The group stayed in existence for some days, and were called the Vigilance Committee and the "Saints" by some. In their zeal they killed one man, and tarred and feathered several others, and because of their efforts many of the undesirable element did leave the area.
Also about this time many Negroes began to leave the area, especially in south Ouachita County, because of signs that were posted throughout the oil field in that section saying "Nigger, read and leave." The newspapers reported that the signs were the work of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Sheriff Ed Harper tried to assure the blacks that they would be protected, but many left anyway. It was thought that the IWW, which had been active in the field only recently, wanted the Negroes jobs.
During the early years of the boom, some wells were allowed to flow wildly and as a result of these careless production methods, there was a terrible waste of crude oil and the "low lying sloughs were denuded of their vegetation" by the salt water. Thousands of earthen storage pits were built to catch the flow of crude but all too often the oil either overflowed the pits or broke the embankments.
This was especially true during heavy rains. In November 1922 more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil poured into Smackover Creek when a large wooden storage tank and several earthen storage tanks broke following the softening of the earth from heavy rains. The creek caught fire and became a roaring sheet of flame. The wind blew a spray of oil from the Jackson, Workman, Thompson's, Dee McDonald No. 1 well in Section 1, Township 16 South, Range 16 West to a burning log washed up on the side of the flaming creek and Smackover had a duplicate of the famous Caddo Central's, Rogers No. 1 well. Lightning, would strike the open pits, causing fires. It was estimated that in 1926 there were 28,752 open pits in the site. From two to eight per cent of the crude oil production in the Smackover Field was lost in the first twelve years. Natural gas was wasted in even larger quantities. (88)
Any article on oil in Arkansas should mention Thomas Harry Barton. Of the many people who came to south Arkansas during the boom, Colonel Barton is one of those who made the most valuable contribution to the state in such areas as leadership, development, and philanthropy. He arrived in the area after the Constantin well came in in 1920, and concentrated on the natural gas business. Barton had seen service in the Texas National Guard and had attained the rank of colonel. Before arriving in El Dorado, he had been a Dallas representative for Barbour Paving and Asphalt Company, having had some experience in oil exploration in Breckenridge, Texas. Colonel Barton and his associates created natural gas gathering systems in Union County and sold much of it as boiler fuel. Previous to this boilers for drilling rigs had been heated by wood. His company, the El Dorado Natural Gas Company, was started in 1921, and later, a small refinery stripping plant was located at the community of Coppress south of El Dorado.
This plant condensed part of the oil field gas into a liquid state and the yield was a product known as casinghead gas, a volatile gasoline which made excellent fuel for the automobiles of that time. He merged his company with the Arkansas Natural Gas Company in 1928 and then sold out to Cities Service.
Meanwhile, Lion Oil & Refinery Company, which Barton would later make into the company it is today, had been organized by local people in El Dorado in 1922 with a small refinery located southwest of town. E. C. Winters of Kansas City and two associates bought the property in 1923. The company was incorporated in Delaware on October 27, 1923. Until 1928 Lion Oil was strictly a refinery, processing the crude oil from the nearby fields and especially from the earthen storage pits. But in that year the company acquired a bulk plant and three service stations in El Dorado.
When Barton sold his company to Cities Service he was offered the presidency of Lion Oil, but turned it down because he wanted to travel. His travels took him to Kansas City where Winters, the largest stockholder in the corporation, persuaded him to take the job. He assumed the presidency January 1, 1929, and he and his associates launched Lion Oil into one of the largest oil companies in the South with hundreds of marketing stations, miles of pipeline, several river terminals, oil exploration, and large research programs. As a result of its creation, Lion Oil payrolls poured millions of dollars into Arkansas.
Within the first five years of the boom over 600 million dollars poured into Arkansas for the development of petroleum operations and facilities alone. This was five times as much as the value of all the gold recovered from the Klondikegold fields. It was 24 times greater than the combined capital of all 500 Arkansas banks at the time oil was discovered. And it was more than the entire assessed value of all taxable property in the state of Arkansas at that time.
Although Arkansas was fourth in oil production in the United States by 1924, today the petroleum industry in south Arkansas has dwindled to a fraction. The three refineries that remain in Union County have difficulty finding crude oil for processing. Much of it comes from other states. The existing fields may be compared to an aerosol can that has lost its pressure. Despite the millions of barrels of oil extracted from these fields, it is ironical that over fifty per cent of the oil still remains under the surface with no practical method of secondary recovery to take it from the ground. (93)
Even if some way is found to free this petroleum, it is doubtful that a boom such as the one started on January 10, 1921, will ever appear again in the south.