The Year Christmas Came Late.
December 23, 2013
Christmas did not come to Kilgore that year. Christmas had not come for a long time. And there were some who didn’t believe Christmas would ever come again.
A nation had been strangled by the Great Depression. No money. No jobs. Little hope. In Kilgore, about all anyone had was dirt, but that was enugh to grow a few crops, provided the rains didn’t come too often, too hard, or not at all.
December of 1930 offered little to promise, and all eyes were turned toward Ed Bateman, who was out on Lou Della’s Crim, drilling for oil and wondering if it was worth the effort. Dry holes were nothing new to Ed Bateman. In fact, he had never struck oil before, but now, perhaps, he had finally found a patch of ground that wouldn’t seduce, then disappoint, him again.
Long hours and long days were crippling. Money ran scarce, then was gone, and Bateman had more money than food. He was hungry. His crew was starving. His family was famished.
The pipe was shaking far down in the hole, and Bateman doubted that it would go any deeper. He had already asked for about as much as that pipe could give him. For luck, which had thus far escaped them, the crew, bedeviled with superstition, stepped up onto the rig, and each of them tossed something personal down into the well. Bateman’s wife, Caroline, was right behind. She removed a gold filigree bracelet from her wrist and held it over the hole.
“You’re not gonna throw that away?” Bateman asked in his Georgia drawl.
“I might as well,” she answered.
“Why?” he wanted to know.
“For luck,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of it, and we need all we can get.”
Ed Bateman sighed deeply. “If we strike oil,” he promised Caroline, “I’ll buy you the biggest diamond bracelet you ever saw. If we don’t, I guess it won’t make a bit of difference. It’s all or nothing now.” Caroline took a deep breath, dropped the bracelet, and watched it tumble down into the dark abyss of a well that was either full of oil or as empty as Ed Bateman’s pockets.
The drill chewed its way down to 2,500 feet, and the old coffee pot rig began to bend and shudder. If the manufacturer was right, it couldn’t go any deeper, and the mud on the bit neither tasted nor smelled like oil. The strain on the derrick had become unbearable, and the weather turned worse. After months of a harsh, lingering drought, rain began to spill day after day on the sun-baked earth. Creeks swelled and rushed out of their banks. Cars and trucks were immobilized as they sank into the unforgiving grip of red clay.
Bateman had placed W. E. “Checkbook” Cain in charge of the drilling operation, and Cain managed to coax the pipe down another thousand feet even though the odds said he couldn’t do it. Cain’s face was creased with worry. He checked the mud down in the hole.
If he drilled much deeper, the rig was bound to splinter, and the chill of a winter rain wrapped itself around the Lou Della farm. As hard as the long hot summer had been, the rains were worse. The heat had been uncomfortable. The wet cold hurt.
The bit broke.
Malcolm Crim, Lou Della’s son, drove back to his mercantile store, took out eighty-six hard-earned dollars, and gave them to Bateman to buy a new one.
Christmas came, and no one on the rig had any cause to celebrate.
But a day later, Checkbook Cain drilled into the elusive woodbine sand at 3,629 feet, and he found unmistakable traces of oil in the core sample. Around him, the wooden derrick was bowing heavily under the strain, but it refused to break. Now all Cain had to do was hold the rig together until oil blew it out from under him.
On Sunday morning, a roughneck, his face and clothes awash with grease, grime, and oil, stumbled through the back door of the little clapboard Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. He found Lou Della sitting in her favorite pew, waiting with patience between the first scripture and the last amen, and he yelled, “The well’s in, Mrs. Crim. It’s a gusher.”
She nodded, smiled softly at the minister, and he continued preaching. The oil had been out on the farm waiting on her for at least sixty-two years, she thought. It certainly wouldn’t mind waiting until the sermon had ended. Her only regret was that Malcolm had insisted on going to the well instead of church that morning.
He was standing on the front porch by the time the final prayer faded away and his mother came walking through the Presbyterian Church door. Malcolm Crim’s long years of frustration had been buried beneath a lake of oil. “Come see it,” he told his mother. “You’ve got to.”
Lou Della wasn’t so sure. She hesitated a moment, then replied, “Well, if you think it’s safe, I’ll come.”
As she rode quietly out through the pine grove and turned toward the farm, it was quite possible that she was the only one in Kilgore that morning who was not overwhelmed by the oil that had fallen upon her empty cotton fields.
Christmas had arrived three days late.
But once again, it had found Kilgore.
Times had been hard. Drought had scorched the cotton and ruined the truck crops. The Great Depression had robbed a lot of people of their money and their dignity. Many were able to survive solely on handouts, the few vegetables they grew in their yards, and credit, especially credit. Malcolm Crim had been giving most all of them credit for years. Some were several hundred dollars in debt, and some had no idea how or if they would ever be able to pay him back. But Crim trusted his neighbors, and they depended on him.
He asked everyone who owed him money, which was almost everyone in Kilgore, to meet him down at the mercantile store. When they arrived, he gathered everyone around him, tore up the debts, and burned the scraps of paper. “We’re wiping the slate clean today,” he said. “Now, we’re even with everybody.”
Merry Christmas, Kilgore.
The story of the oil boom in Kilgore can be found in Caleb Pirtle’s Echoes from Forgotten Streets, a coffee-table quality book with more than 400 historical photographs of the era, collected by Terry Stembridge. You can find the books at the Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation.