By the early decades of the 20th century Americans were well-versed in the art of migrating toward economic windfalls. In the 1920s, Texas oil promised fast bucks for speculators; earnest wages for roughnecks, drillers and construction workers; and easy money for crooks, bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes.
The legend of the Texas oil industry begins in Corsicana, approximately 56 miles (88 km)
|Mexia’s famous Golden Lane on the west side of town was the heaviest area of production during its 1920s oil boom. (Photos courtesy of Mexia Daily News and Gibbs Memorial Library)
south of Dallas. In 1894, oil began seeping from a well drilled to increase the city’s water supply. This drew speculators to the area, and later the next year Texas’ first producing oil well was completed, pumping a modest 22 b/d. Subsequent years of exploration would open new fields in Burkburnett, Ranger, and Sour Lake and Spindletop near Beaumont, to name a few.
However, many of these oil booms were playing out by 1920. Mexia, Texas, a small cotton town approximately 85 miles (137 km) south of Dallas, would be the stage of the third big oil boom in the state behind Spindletop and Ranger. With a population of around 4,000 the town would grow to 10 times its size in a matter of weeks after the first gushers appeared. The crowd of more than 40,000 would be too much for the local law enforcement to control and, as many locals would reminisce for decades after, it took the National Guard and the Texas Rangers to bring the town back to its peaceful status.
A precursor to the Mexia bonanza began in 1912, when a local farmer’s water well suddenly started blowing oil and gas near Wortham, Texas, a small community between Corsicana and Mexia. Salt water soon killed the flow, but not before creating a buzz about the possible discovery of oil in the area. Blake Smith, a prominent businessman from Mexia, was convinced that the earlier discovery in Corsicana and the incident in Wortham implied that oil existed in the Mexia area as well.
After organizing a consortium of other business owners in the community, Smith acquired a 2,000-acre lease and planned 10 test wells for the area. After a full run of dry holes he convinced the driller to attempt two more wells. A gas discovery was made on the 11th well. Several small gas companies developed in the area supplied gas to many other communities within a 40-mile (64-km) radius. By 1915, the reservoir had produced nearly 2 Bcf of gas. Although it would play out by the mid-1920s, this discovery was the precursor to the coming boom.
Smith and other stockholders in the Mexia Gas Co. were not satisfied with gas production
||The Winter Garden was transformed into a military prison during the occupation of Mexia. Notice Capt. Hamer to the left; this Texas Ranger would later make history by ending the career of bankrobbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in 1934.
alone. To prove that oil was in the vicinity, the company offered half-interest in its 2,000-acre lease for any operator willing to drill a deep test for oil. As a result, the Rogers #1 was completed, after some difficulty, 3 miles (4.8 km) west of Mexia on November 19, 1920. Drilled to 3,100 ft (946 m), the well produced a mere 50 b/d. Although not a stellar discovery, it convinced A.E. Humphreys, who had originally declined the company’s offer, that the area had potential.
Immediately, Humphreys set about acquiring acreage and constructing facilities to transport and process the oil he expected to find. It was a major gamble that paid off — and paid off well. Humphreys’ second well, the Berthelson #1, came in at 4,000 b/d and is considered the beginning of the Mexia boom proper. Each new well substantiated earlier hopes of vast reserves. On August 21, 1921, two wells — the Desenberg #1 and the Adamson #1 — spewed 18,000 b/d and 24,000 b/d of oil, respectively. The latter continued to be the premiere well along the Mexia fault.
The major area of production was approximately half a mile (.8 km) wide and nearly 7 miles (11 km) long. The Mexia field produced from the Woodbine sand and was located on the western side of town. Rigs extended for a distance of 20 miles (32 km) along the Balcones fault until consistent dry holes proved that the field had played out. The area became known as the “Golden Lane” (Figure 1) and, in 1921, produced 5 million bbl of oil with no signs of decline. The town’s new prosperity meant that all roads leading to Mexia were jammed.
From order to chaos
By the end of August 1921 Mexia had become synonymous with the “Golden City of Eldorado.” As news of the Desenberg and Adamson gushers spread, the once sleepy central Texas cotton town overflowed with streams of Wall Street brokers, Pittsburgh millionaires and droves of people with nothing more than hopeful wishes. The town’s horizon filled with newly constructed derricks. Railroad cars jammed the tracks with machinery and lumber, and the Dallas-Houston highway running through Mexia swelled with people and supplies headed for the newest boomtown.
With the advent of motor cars and mass transit, people moved faster in the 1920s. According to Nanine Simmons, Mexia native and journalist for the Waco Times-Herald
, the population of Mexia soared from 4,000 to more than 40,000 just weeks after production began full swing.
Almost overnight, the city jumped to the 10th largest in the state. With earlier oil booms declining in Burkburnett, Ranger and Desdemona, there were no major plays to compete for the nation’s headlines, and Mexia became a household word.
With massive overcrowding, the town’s previous sense of order descended into a state of anarchy. According to one account, there was at least one gambler and a bootlegger for every 10 legitimate businessmen. The city issued 1,350 building permits in the first 4 months of production, and a wide array of shotgun houses, tarpaper shacks and tents began popping up on the outskirts of the town. Belknap Street became infamous for its lawlessness and was dubbed “Little Juarez.”
In spite of national prohibition laws, several famous resorts were built. The Winter Garden and the Chicken Farm, both located in neighboring Freestone County, became notorious as full-service establishments providing liquor, gambling and hourly rooms, which came complete with a hostess.
Operating 24 hours a day, the Winter Garden provided a safe haven for indulging oneself
|This roulette wheel was part of the spoils after the initial raids on the Winter Garden and the Chicken Farm in nearby Freestone County.
just 4 miles (6.4 km) away from town. Guns had to be checked at the door and armored lofts contained guards equipped with sawed-off shotguns to protect the patrons from the law — and the lawless. With game stakes of US $25,000 and up, the urge of getting rich quick was tempting for many individuals who had made a career out of following oil camps across the state. The facility also contained a variety of secret exits to avoid hassles in the unlikely event of a raid.
By the end of 1921, the townspeople who had openly welcomed the newcomers came to realize the true nature of their guests. The persistence of murder and robbery made it dangerous to be in the field or the town unarmed. The city had gone mad and, because it was impossible to police, many of the residents and oilmen resorted to carrying pistols to protect themselves.
The lawlessness that had overwhelmed the town throughout the fall of 1921 came to an end early in 1922 when Governor Pat M. Neff proclaimed martial law in a portion of Limestone County on January 11, 1922. Within 3 weeks, after discovering the widespread illegal liquor trade in neighboring Freestone County, it was also placed under martial law on Feb. 2.
Jacob F. Wolters, brigadier general of the Texas National Guard, was appointed by Neff as the supreme commander of the joint venture between the National Guard and 13 Texas Rangers commanded by Frank Hamer. The investigative team also included Federal narcotics and prohibition agents.
In his 1930 book, Martial Law and Its Administration, Wolters’ described the situation in Mexia: “Murder, highway robbery, gambling, bootlegging, prostitution and every conceivable crime became the order of the day and the night…the condition of lawlessness that existed on January 12th, the date of the occupation and that had existed for several months, amounted to anarchy.”
Initial raids were carried out at the Chicken Farm and the Winter Garden, the latter of which was co-opted for use as a military prison throughout the 7-week occupation (Figure 2). Wolters reported that, “open bars were conducted, gambling outfits consisting of roulette wheel, crap tables, blackjack tables, poker tables, and chuck-a-luck were running.”
More than 3,000 people were expelled from the town within the next 24 hours. Many who qualified as vagrants but had no significant criminal record were given “sundown” orders, which gave them the option of standing trial or simply leaving Limestone County by sundown. The remaining detainees were photographed and fingerprinted with all information dispersed to other police departments throughout the country, which resulted in the arrest of many criminals under previous indictments from other counties and states.
Wolters’ later report from 1930 claimed that 602 persons were arrested with approximately 150 detained in the makeshift military prison until transportation could be arranged. Thirteen automobiles were confiscated, 53 stolen vehicles were recovered, 12 “peddlers of narcotics” were arrested (five of whom had a “national reputation in the underworld”), $4,000 worth of narcotics along with $5,000 worth of gambling paraphernalia were seized and destroyed (Figure 3).
After 47 wet days and 47 cold nights, the military control of the town was ready to be restored to the local authorities. According to one report, liquor had become so scarce by the last week of the occupation that several individuals were arrested for being intoxicated and found in possession of bottles of denatured alcohol labeled in red ink as “Poison.” After 7 weeks, the town’s rowdiness had subsided and the supply of liquor, dope and safe havens for vices had dissipated as well.
After the fall
As February closed, the military occupation of Limestone and Freestone also ended. The transition took several weeks as the town got back to business. While the local production companies breathed a sigh of relief, the Mexia oil field continued to flow. It was during the occupation that the field saw its peak day’s production of 176,000 bbl, which came on February 12, 1922.
This year would prove to be the best year for the field. From its 5 million bbl in 1921, the field yielded a record 35 million bbl in 1922. The field raised the state’s total production by 12% for the year, but reckless production would soon downgrade the Mexia pool. By 1927 the entire field would yield only 10,000 bbl. Many estimates claim that the conservation and proration practices of today would have extended the life of this pool to 50 or 100 years. However, the mad rush to drill as much as possible depleted the pool before its time.
For several decades after the boom many citizens of the town were convinced that new technology would soon discover oil deposits below the shallow plays that produced the first big boom. After several deep tests in later years, no oil was proven, but Mexians kept looking over their shoulder for the wave of people coming in for the next big bonanza.