Unexpected Riches from a Damnable Patch of Good Earth. The Traveler’s Story.
July 14, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Burkburnett came in with a boom. By the time town lots were sold in 1907, the community already had a bank, a newspaper, and the legendary 6666 Ranch. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. Five years later, however, on a hot July morning, the Schmoker No. 1 erupted a mile or so outside of Burkburnett, and it was blowing oil across land that had always been reserved for great cattle herds. In time, those grazing pastures would be outlined with wooden derricks that sat atop one of the world’s largest producing pools.
The Sights: The downtown Katy Depot Museum and the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum trace a boom that, during its heyday, made Burkburnett as wild, as tempestuous, as notorious as any town in the West. Trains rolled into the oilfield, their passenger cars crammed with men looking for a job. Burkburnett had no hotel or rooming houses, so roughnecks and roustabouts slept on porches, in churches, in cardboard boxes, or any place that kept them from the heat, the rain, and the wind. It wasn’t long before a derrick was rising up on every lot. Fortune hunters roared into town, followed by Texas Rangers bent on closing down the dance halls and shutting down the bootleggers. Crooked promoters searched the streets for men willing to take risks, and if a man had a spare dollar in his pocket, he was willing to gamble on oil. One wildcatter leased acreage on a farm, tossed an empty whiskey bottle into the air, and drilled where the bottled landed. It was a time when seers, mediums, doodlebuggers, and diviners were walking the West Texas prairie right alongside engineers and geologists, gambling that the next big oil strike would belong to them. As one of them said: “There must be something under the land. There’s surely nothing on top of it.”
The Setting: In time, oil dwindled and holes dried up. The last well was plugged in 1960, but the heritage of the Burkburnett boom remains as vibrant as always within the memories of a town that once had a dance hall girl for every man in town.
The Story: Old Man Fowler hated a nag, and that’s what his wife was. The only time she was really happy was when she was unhappy and had the time to complain about it, which she almost always did. The sun was too hot, or the rain was too wet, or the chickens laid too many eggs, or they didn’t lay any at all.
Old Man Fowler would have just gone ahead and run away from home, but she refused to go with him, and Old Man Fowler really wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her. He thought about it. But he didn’t leave. Sometimes he cursed the dry ground and the harsh, bitter winds that sucked the life out of his farm and dared him to hang around long enough to wither and die before the first rain fell, which could have been next week or never. Old Man Fowler was as miserable as the yellowed tomatoes that wrinkled on the vine. Both depended on the sandy dirt at his feet, and it let both of them down.
The Texas drought of 1918 had crept into Burkburnett, caught him when he was looking the other way, and whipped up on him pretty good. He wasn’t alone. He just felt that way sometimes. He just felt that way most of the time. Early one morning, Old Man Fowler walked out of the house without a word and slowly began packing his wagon.
“Where you headed?” his wife asked him.
“Anywhere but here.”
“How far are you goin’?”
“As far as it takes.”
“Who’s gonna cook your meals and wash your clothes?”
Old Man Fowler wiped the dust from his face and, just as slowly, without another word, began unpacking the wagon again. Lord, he wanted to get out of Burkburnett. That was the only thought on his mind. That was all he talked about. He begged his wife to go with him, but she was a stubborn and foolish woman.
“We can’t leave here,” she would whisper to him.
“There might be oil beneath us.”
Old Man Fowler laughed. His wife had been listening to too much gossip about all of those gushers spilling oil across the fields around Ranger, and it had dang near ruined her. Why Ranger was irrigating its crops with oil instead of water, or so the rumors went. Farmers in debt for breakfast were millionaires by supper time. And some drillers even had the audacity to begin digging deep within the sanctified soil of the cemetery. Oil was everywhere.
Old Man Fowler’s wife wanted some it, being the stubborn and foolish woman that she was. She was tired of the hard times. Life was bound to get a little better if they could just pack up and leave Burkburnett in the dust of their wagon, the old man swore. But that’s what he said the last time, and the time before. She wasn’t listening anymore.
Late one afternoon, as the sun toasted the turnip greens for the bugs to munch, the Fowlers walked quietly out across the stunted cotton that was wilting on their farm, both feeling as common as the dirt and the rocks beneath their feet. The old man talked of the cotton fields of Louisiana where the land was so moist and rich that you could stick your finger in the ground, and it would sprout roots. He needed some land like that. A farmer could waste his whole life and never find land like that, and it was cheap, and it was just sitting there waiting for him.
His wife, however kept reminding the old man that the price of oil had jumped to two dollars and a quarter a barrel and that the Texas Pacific Company over in Ranger had, within the last day or so, turned down an offer of a hundred and twenty million dollars for its oil holdings. At least that’s what the gossip said, and she had no reason not to believe it.
“You seen any of that oil?” he asked.
No, she hadn’t.
“You got your hands dirty from any of that oil?”
No, she hadn’t.
But she knelt on the farm, picked up a dab of dirt, and placed it on her tongue. “But I can taste it,” she said.
Old Man Fowler sighed. It was definitely his lot in life to be married to a stubborn and foolish woman, and he couldn’t escape it, so there was no reason to try. He stayed home, and he picked his yellow tomatoes instead of the road out of town.
One night his wife surprised him. She came to his bedside with a compromise. She would leave and go with him, just like the Bible said she should, even to the moist, rich fields of Louisiana, if only Old Man Fowler would at least drill one test well on the farm before she bid it farewell.
He sighed again, this time with aggravation. It would cost the rest of the money he had stuffed in a drawer full of socks to humor her, maybe more, but it would at last clear her mind of its stubborn and foolish dreams, or demons, about wallowing in the filth of oil field wealth. He did not mind throwing away a few dollars if it meant he could finally leave Burkburnett. He had rather lose his money than his sanity, and it was hanging on now with broken fingernails.
Old Man Fowler talked a few of his friends into putting up twelve thousand dollars to drill a well. He was indeed a fortunate man to have friends who had caught the fever and were suffering as badly as his wife. He would have laughed at them, too, if he hadn’t been so grateful for their cold, hard cash. The old man ambled out across his farm land and chose the spot where he could dig that dang test well. The decision wasn’t difficult. Old Man Fowler wasn’t persuaded by science or soil samples. He would just dig for better times there amidst the yellowed tomatoes. The hole couldn’t ruin them any more than the relentless summer sun had. As far as he was concerned, one patch of farm land was as good as another, and they were all dry anyway. All he wanted to do was turn a little dirt and hit the road.
Louisiana lay at the end of it. He reached for his map and didn’t pay much attention to the rig. It awoke him each morning, grating on his nerves as the drill bit grated its teeth on the cracked rock beneath his farm. All it was doing, he thought, was moving around a few worms. He wondered why the driller was intent on bringing so much dust to the top of the ground when the land around him was already choking on it.
“What have you found at the bottom of the hole?” Old Man Fowler asked him late one afternoon.
“More hole,” the driller said.
“Any chance of hitting water?”
“Out here, you got a better chance of hitting China.”
On the night of July 26, Old Man Fowler lay sleeping beside that stubborn and foolish woman of his. He was suddenly awakened by a man whose face was wet and stained the color of oil. “Sir,” the driller said, “I hate to wake you up, but your well’s come in, and we don’t know quite what to do. We’ve already got twelve hundred barrels of storage filled, and now she’s runnin’ down the cotton rows.”
Old Man Fowler lay back in his bed and tried hard to dream of Louisiana. But, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember where it was or how to get there anymore.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
Please click here to read more about Caleb Pirtle’s novels on Amazon.