The Devil’s Chalk had always robbed them blind.
December 11, 2013
An excerpt from Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, the story of the men who fought each other and the Austin Chalk around Giddings, Texas, in a wild, determined effort to strike it rich.
When Max Williams drove through town in the spring of 1976, the population of Giddings still hovered near two thousand, give or take a few old soreheads, some staying, and some just drifting through. Almost forty years earlier, the first parade of wildcatters began venturing into the empty farmlands in search for oil. None of them knew anything about the cursed and defiant Austin Chalk. Most merely hoped to stumble across a salt dome because common wisdom in the oil patch, handed down for generations, said oil was seldom found anywhere else.
The country was being battered, its resources drained and emptied, by a Great Depression, the price of cotton had dropped from thirty cents to six cents a pound, and some landowners were on the verge of losing everything they had. A lot had already shuttered their windows and left, although few had any idea about where they were going or if life would be any better when they arrived. They were merely looking for a job, any job, good or bad, and the chance for employment in Lee County was as futile as the hope for rain. Men and women both earned ninety-cents a day picking cotton, and the good pickers could bring in three hundred pounds by sundown. Long lines of wagons circled the gins, and farmers were beginning to talk about re-plowing their fields with peanuts, grain sorghum, and corn. A few were even running cattle, horses, and hogs. For them, money was scarce and drying up. Rain could make a difference, but the skies had all turned dry. Trees lost their shade, and even the clouds drifted elsewhere for lack of interest.
The ground of Lee County possessed a lot of secrets. Maybe a reservoir of oil was one of them. At least, that’s what the farmers thought during those harsh and unforgiving days of the 1930s. The promise was so bright that Texas Osage, founded as a cooperative royalty pool when the stock market crashed in 1929, came hard into Lee County and began buying up mineral tracts, as many as they could acquire, from the landowners. Bad times loomed on the horizon, and most farmers were willing to sell almost anything they owned for a few extra dollars. They wanted to keep their land if possible. Mineral rights on acreage that had never yielded any minerals were worthless.
Rigs were brought in. Holes were drilled, and this was not an easy drill. A little oil splashed here and there among the crop rows. But most of the holes were dry or soon dry. Wildcatters had come face to face with the Austin Chalk, and they left with a little more wisdom and a lot less money in the bank than when they rode into town to outwit the land. Hard ground. Hard times. Hard luck.
It was shortly after two o’clock in the early afternoon when Max Williams pulled into an Exxon service station. He was looking for oil, low on gas, and lost. Well, he knew where he was. He wasn’t quite sure he knew where he was going. And that’s how he met Walter Schneider. “I understand there’s a big chalk well around here,” Williams said.
Schneider nodded. “I don’t just pump gas here at the station,” he said. “I also go out and pump that big well for Chuck Alcorn.”
“I hear it’s pretty good.”
“It’s the best well we’ve got around here,” Schneider said. “Of course, it’s about the only one we have, too. Others went dry, but that old City of Giddings Well, it just keeps right on flowing and hasn’t shown any slack yet.”
“Can you tell me where it is?”
“South of town.” Schneider paused a moment, grinned, and said, “If you can wait awhile, I’ll go out there with you. Show you where it’s at.”
“Won’t be but a minute or two.”
Max Williams, guided by the directions of Walter Schneider, bounced across the potholes and down the old, narrow country road that led past the rusting, rotting remains of the airport. The terminal had already been torn down. The runway was latticed with dirt and scattered patches of grass, mostly weeds. Planes were landing somewhere else now, coming into a newer airport that had not been sprayed or speckled with old oil.
Through the windshield of his Blazer, Max Williams gazed for the first time at the big chalk well. He could barely hide the excitement boiling up inside of him, but he kept his feelings to himself. The well, the one-in-a-million well, wasn’t a myth after all. It was pretty much where the rumors said it would be. The scene before him was far different from the one he had imagined. Something wasn’t quite right.
Chuck Alcorn had left the tanks overturned and lying on their sides. The rusting rods and old pipes had fallen next to the pumping unit. They remained untouched and undisturbed. Chuck Alcorn had been a superstitious man. He found a fortune at the bottom of an old clunker, and he refused to tempt fate. Nothing had been removed. The well site remained unchanged on a blistered landscape, surrounded with brittle brush stands and strewn with broken collections of rock.
Walter Schneider folded his arms and leaned back in the Blazer. “I hear that she’s already made three hundred thousand barrels,” he said. “Maybe more. I have no idea how deep or wide the pool is, but that old string of pipe just keeps sitting there and bringing the oil back up. Don’t look like she’s ever gonna quit.”
“Why do you think there aren’t any more wells like it around here?” Williams wanted to know.
“It’s the chalk.” Walter Schneider laughed. “There may be a dozen or so holes in the ground, and some have been here a long time. Nothing worthwhile in any of them. If a well had as much as a thimble full of oil, it’s long gone by now.”
Max Williams frowned. The field did not make sense to him. “What makes this well so good?” Williams asked.
“Chuck Alcorn – he’s the man who figured out how it to make it work – is one lucky sonuvabitch,” Schneider said. “This field’s probably got one good well, and he’s found it. Made him a rich man, too. Well, maybe not rich, but he hasn’t been worrying about his next meal for some time.”
Walter Schneider laughed again. He felt a close and sometimes reverent kinship with the well, too. He kept it pumping, rain or shine, and it kept right on producing, night or day. The City of Giddings No. 1 had not made him a rich man either, but, on payday, it certainly helped ease the pain.
“What’s the chance of a man buying up a little lease acreage around here?” Williams asked.
“There’s plenty of it available.”
The grin on Schneider’s face broadened. “I doubt if it would cost you a lot,” he said. “I just hope you’ve got a lot of money.”
“The chalk’s gonna take ever last bit of it,” he said.
Please click the book cove image to read more about the Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.