Black Gold in Wood County

This is the oil essay Kristen Witt of Mineola, Texas, wrote that helped her win the T.C. Chadick $2,000 scholarship available to seniors in Wood and Franklin Counties. The essay had to be written on some historical event that occurred in Wood or Franklin Counties prior to 1945.

Black Gold
Suppose you are a farmer in Hawkins, Texas in 1940. Your land sits on rolling hills and valleys, forested in spots by piney woods atop sandy soil. You have no air conditioning or telephone, and your mode of transportation is a horse and wagon driven over dirt roads. There is no internet service or cell phone. Your only livelihood is the crops you slave over every day and night. But one day, all this changes with a simple knock on the door. Bobby Manziel stands on your doorstep with a proposal, “Let us drill for oil on your land.” With a charming smile, he convinces you to sign the required papers; and in an instant, your life is destined to change.

A few weeks later, you find time to relax in the evening by listening to “You are My Sunshine” on your battery-powered radio, the life-line for news, music and entertainment for your family. You have a hard day’s work ahead of you, slaving over the plow in the deadly sun. Times are hard, but you must provide for your family. You turn off the radio, walk a few yards from your house to the outhouse, and return home to turn off kerosene lamps and settle under your handmade quilts. You lie awake for a few moments listening to the “chirp-chirp” of crickets and the occasional “hoot” of an owl. Your curtains blow gracefully as the cool night air pours through open windows into your humble home.

Just as your eyes close and your breathing slows, you are jarred awake by a terrifying sound. The earth begins to shake tremendously; and, fearfully, you leap out of bed. Running outside, you have no idea what to expect. The sight you witness is one you will never forget. Spewing wildly from a 40-foot wooden oil derrick is black, rich oil. As the oil pours onto the ground and drillers rush to contain it, you suddenly realize a shocking fact. Overnight, you have become very rich.

This was a common scene experienced by many families in the 1940’s, in Hawkins, TX. Beginning in October, 1940, Wood County experienced its first oil boom. Bobby Manziel drilled the first oil well 3.5 miles north of town; and, overnight, Hawkins became the talk of East Texas. People poured in from miles away hoping to take part in the wealth pouring from the city. The sudden fame also brought in con-men, prostitutes, criminals, and many other troublesome people. Police officers and Texas Rangers struggled to keep up with the nonsense that occurred. The boom brought in drillers and oil producers placing bids on land in hopes of also striking oil. Within the same year, Steve Rotundi and F. R. Jackson struck oil. However, this time it was within the Hawkins city limits. Residents sold their land to multiple producers who eventually sold out to large corporations such as the Humble Oil and Refining Company.
Drilling oil was not an easy job. More often than not it was a gamble. Technology had not advanced enough to determine where to drill for oil nor was the machinery equipped to easily drill into the ground.

Drillers had to be strong and in good condition. Some put their lives on the line for the sake of oil production. The crew needed the strength, skill, and discipline of a football team and the precision of a woman threading a needle. These men would spend weeks, even months, drilling the same well. Long periods of time would pass before they knew whether or not oil was even present under their derrick. As each day passed, every crew member had the same question on his mind, “Will we strike oil?”

On the occasion that oil was found, quite a celebration was thrown. After months of hoping, wishing, and almost giving up, it all became worth it. Each time black gold poured from the ground, the residents of Hawkins, TX, men, women, and children, shouted for joy! The town was booming, business was thriving, the population was growing; and Hawkins had found its claim to fame.

The discovery of oil not only benefited Hawkins and Wood County but the entire country as well. The Humble Oil and Refining Company, now Exxon, provided oil for the Allies during World War II and helped contribute to the building of the pipeline that extended to Pennsylvania.

Over time, the oil pools did begin to dry up. Oil production is no longer as prosperous as it once was; however, it still plays a huge part in Hawkins’ economy. Every year, Hawkins holds an Oil Festival to honor those who so bravely risked their lives for the gamble of finding the precious black gold.

The discovery of oil changed Hawkins and the residents of Wood County forever. I am one of those residents. In the 1940’s, my great-grandfather, Orville Goolsby, lived in Wood County and worked as a driller for many oil companies. Because of his labor and investment in the oil industry of Wood County, my family continues to reside in this county and benefit from it. I am grateful for the oil boom because it positioned my great-grandfather to participate in mapping out my destiny and has provided the opportunity for me to be raised in a tranquil community rich in family history.

Sources:
Discovery of Oil in Hawkins – The first oil well in Wood Co., Tx
The Handbook of Texas online by Texas State Historical Association.

Vertical Files: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Adele W. Vickery, “A Transcript of Centennial Edition, 1850-1950 Wood County Democrat” (Mineola, Texas, 1974)

“Wood County, 1850-1900” (Quitman, Texas: Wood County Historical Society, 1976).

Internet source: “All Things Historical” Dec. 19, 2005

Personal interviews with:
Larry Lewis (a family friend), son of Irvin C.”Shorty” Lewis, who worked for Roger Lacy Oil Company in the 1940’s in Hawkins, Tx.

Lucy Carr (my grandmother), daughter of Orville Otis Goolsby, who worked for various oil companies throughout Wood County during the 1940’s.

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