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Edgar Byram Davis, Luling’s Wildcatter and Philanthropist

”The most peculiar angel” and a man of faith.

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Edgar Byram Davis speaking to his picnic attendees on June 5, 1926.
Photograph courtesy of The Genealogical and Historical Society of Caldwell County

Never before or since has Luling seen such a party as the giant bash wildcatter Edgar Byram Davis hosted on June 5, 1926. Everyone from the surrounding three counties (Guadalupe, Gonzales, and Caldwell) was invited to the picnic, which sprawled out over one hundred acres of San Marcos River frontage.

To say Davis had killed the fatted calf would be a massive understatement: at least 15,000 (and possibly as many as 35,000) denizens of Luling, Gonzales, Seguin, and Lockhart and environs were treated to 6 tons of beef, 5,180 pounds of mutton, 2,000 frying chickens, 28,000 bottles of soft drinks 6,000 bottles of near-beer, 8,700 bricks of ice cream, 7,000 cakes, and vats of beans, potato salad, and coffee.

Actually, there were two parties that day—one for the whites and another for blacks. Davis, a transplanted Yankee from Massachusetts with progressive views, might have preferred an integrated party, but such things were just not done in roaring-twenties Texas. Each party was treated to arias from a trio of opera singers brought in from New York.

As the sun set, Davis handed out 100,000 cigarettes and 7,500 cigars and told his weary guests of his ambitious plans for the region, the place where, after drilling a half dozen dry holes, he finally struck oil and amassed the third fortune in his life (black gold coming after his first million in a Massachusetts shoe factory and several more racked up in Indonesian rubber plantations).

Davis had just sold his interests in the Luling Oil Field he discovered three years earlier to Magnolia Petroleum for a staggering $12 million, often described as the America’s most lucrative oil deal up to that date (worth about $300 million today). And now it was time to give back, on a scale seldom seen before or since.

Nowadays, oil companies are publicly owned and beholden to shareholders, not run at the whim of sole proprietors. The sort of manic generosity on display at Davis’s picnic—and perhaps noblesse oblige too, which fosters it—is no longer possible.

Davis acting as Luling’s benefactor was of the cultural moment, and what’s more, fell in line with the actions of other soft-hearted Texas oilmen. As I wrote years ago: Will Hogg believed that Texas’s oil belonged to Texas, not himself alone. “The government made a mistake in not reserving for its own use all the wealth below the soil,” he once said. “What I don’t pay back in taxes on the oil which should not have been mine, I’m glad to give back away for the public welfare.” And give back he did.

For Davis, the picnics were just the beginning.  He announced that he would be handing over one quarter of his windfall—$3 million—to his employees as profit shares.

And there was more: during his time in the Luling area, he had been appalled by the region’s overreliance on cotton farming, and to alleviate that, Davis announced that he would be turning over another million to fund an experimental model farm outside of town, one showcasing animal husbandry techniques and methods for diversifying crops. (It still exists today, as the Luling Foundation Agriculture Demonstration Farm.) Davis also gifted the city with two parks with community centers, for white and black residents, respectively.

Davis’s lavish generosity extended beyond his adopted hometown. A lover of Texas landscapes (especially its wildflowers), Davis partnered with the San Antonio Art League to host Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions at the brand-new Witte Museum. Davis purchased the best submissions from the artists and donated their works to the league. In addition to popularizing the Texas landscape, the San Antonio Current stated five years ago that Davis’s donations “really put the San Antonio Art League’s influence and importance on the national map.” CUT: In the foreword to William E. Reaves’s Texas Art and a Wildcatter’s Dream: Edgar B. Davis and the San Antonio Art League, art historian Cecilia Steinfeldt called Davis’s philanthropy “a milestone in the saga of Texas art history,” nudging Texan painters away from Impressionism and toward proud regionalism.

Much more famously (or infamously) he enlisted the services of J. Frank Davis (no relation), a childhood friend with a dramatic bent (if very little talent) and commissioned him to write a play on one of Edgar’s favorite topics: reincarnation. (That Davis, a devout nondenominational Christian, also believed fervently in the transmigration of souls, was just one of the man’s many contradictions.)

The Ladder, Davis’s play, was utterly savaged by Big Apple critics, some saying it ranked at or near the top of the worst dramas ever to appear on Broadway. In sheer awfulness, it seems to have been something like a roaring twenties fore-runner of Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic stinker The Room, and had New Yorkers of that era had more ironic sensibilities, it might have become a hit of the “so-bad-it’s-good” type, but such was not to be.

Undaunted by its reception, Davis had the play rewritten twice (to little if any improvement) and paid millions to keep it running for almost two years. Towards the end of its run, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s critic Marjorie Dorman counted twenty people in the audience (in spite of the play’s $1 ticket price and money-back guarantee) and went on to call Edgar Davis “the most peculiar ‘angel’ that Broadway has ever known.”

Over the course of its run, Dorman reported, The Ladder had burned through $1,125,000 of Davis’s oil money.

Not that Davis cared too much. Money was made only to be spent.

“I may go broke again,” Davis biographer Riley Froh quoted him as saying around that time, “but it looks as though I would have the fun of giving away several million dollars before doing so.”

That was what money was for, he believed, and he likely also believed he could always make more. Had he not done so in three distinct industries?  Wasn’t there an ocean of oil still out there under the Texas sun?’

As ever, he believed, God would provide.

Born in 1873 in Brockton, Massachusetts, Edgar Davis grew up with a devoutly Congregationalist mother instilled him an unshakeable belief in Calvinistic destiny and divine providence that served him well as a businessman and even more as a wildcatter.

Always a hard worker, Davis spent much of his childhood peddling lemonade or cleaning fish in Brockton’s seafood market, expending his rare idle hours competitively sprinting or knocking heads on the gridiron. In later years Davis would pack on more than 300 pounds on his six-foot-four frame, but as a youth, he was all sinew and muscle and foot speed, and his dream of playing end for Harvard — then a powerhouse of collegiate football — seemed attainable, as his brains matched his brawn.

For the first time in his life, but certainly not the last, fate intervened. Davis would never wear the Crimson or attend a single class in Cambridge.

Davis abandoned his dreams of pigskin glory at the instigation of his brother Oscar, whom he followed into the business of making shoes. Despite his mere high school education, by the time he was 35, Edgar was near the top of the Walk Over Shoe Company’s corporate structure and a millionaire. (Founded in 1758, the uber-WASP-y company is still in business.)

For the second time in his life, divine providence was about to send him in another direction.

According to his Luling Foundation bio, some unspecified triggering event on December 1, 1904, sent him spiraling into depression and a succession of breakdowns. After three years of agony, his doctor recommended that he embark on a Mediterranean cruise. A chance meeting on that ship with an old friend set in motion Davis’s transition from shoes to rubber. After years of groundwork, in 1910, Davis, by then an agent of the United States Rubber Company, became the first American to plant a rubber tree on the island of Sumatra, the first of five million such trees he would stick in the steamy jungle soil.

Sumatran rubber plantations were infested with poisonous vipers, and even though Davis was terrified of snakes, he declined to take even the most basic precautions. “To show God’s Guiding Hand, I was given the faith to go through all those years in the East without wearing leggings or puttees, although I must confess that they were unhappy years,” he said later.

Those fraught years were quite lucrative, though, and after Davis returned to the States and retired from the rubber business, he had made as much as $3.5 million, a million of which he handed over to some of his employees, the first of his “thank offerings.” Though he kept an office in New York, Davis planned mainly to kick back in his new house on Cape Cod, in a town called Buzzard’s Bay.

Maybe he got to thinking about the implications of living out his remaining days in town noted for avian scavengers, or maybe he just got bored. In any event, after he’d rebuffed many propositions from friends and associates to dive into Texas wildcatting, again providence — once again taking the form of his brother Oscar — intervened.

Oscar had sunk $75,000 in oil leases in and around Luling and had met with no success. At first, Davis bought only a portion of the company, but on Oscar’s death, he bought out the rest of the company from his estate. By 1921, despite expert advice from geologists that the Luling area was devoid of oil, Davis set in to work. He found himself drilling one dry hole after another, the remnants of his rubber fortune dwindling month by month, duster by duster.

Davis was unfazed. His belief in providence was unshakeable, and according to his biographer Froh he also found solace in some words the Lord sent his way—Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” and especially these lines, which Davis believed were written for him and nobody else:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Davis held on to the bitter end. By August 1922, he was in the red and on the verge of bankruptcy. Evidently his belief in divine providence was infectious, because he persuaded his office staff and roughnecks alike to keep working for him just a little bit longer, even if he couldn’t pay them. On August, their loyalty was redeemed when Davis’s lucky seventh well—Rios #1, began producing. Soon enough the gushers would come as well. The field’s output would eventually be measured in the hundreds of millions of barrels.

Which brings us back to the picnic, and Davis’s extravagant gratitude to the workers who stood by him in the dark times and to the town where he earned his latest and greatest fortune, and then the revolutionizing of the San Antonio and Texan art scenes, and the Broadway debacle.

By the time of the stock market crash of 1929, Davis was 56 years old. By then his adult life had consisted of four acts—the Walk Over shoe era, the rubber years, the wildcatting glory, followed by its intense, at times eccentric, philanthropy.

What would be written in Edgar Davis’s fifth and final act?

As the Depression deepened, Davis was hounded by Massachusetts tax authorities, who claimed he owed them $500,000 in back taxes and penalties for his 1926 earnings. Davis claimed that as a Texas resident, he didn’t owe them a cent, and he obstinately stood fast on the principle even when at one point the Bay State offered to accept a mere $25,000 settlement.

The case dragged on for the rest of his life and even beyond, in courtrooms in both Texas and New England.  (After his death, Massachusetts garnished his estate.)

Meanwhile, Davis headed back into the oil patch, and it seemed like Destiny would bring in greater wealth than ever before. In 1932 he struck a gusher in Matagorda County – the Buckeye field — that was initially reported as worth anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 barrels and 30,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas daily. Unfortunately, it proved too expensive to effectively tap with that era’s technology, and by 1935, Davis’s United North and South Development company was declared insolvent..

Reportedly, Davis turned down an offer of $1,000,000 for the Buckeye drillings, claiming it was worth a hundred times that.

“The Lord is going to reward my faith with another fortune greater than I have ever seen,” he is reported to have said. “It is up to me to maintain faith so I can receive it and reward others less fortunate than I.”

Sadly, that faith was never again reciprocated by God, providence, destiny, whatever you want to call it.

Davis, who never married, spent his remaining days in relative poverty back in Luling, playing bridge and attending each of the town’s churches on alternate Sundays. He was often referred to as a man of mystery—he seldom if ever spoke to the papers, and most of the quotes we have from him come from his friends and associates.

In early October 1951, Davis suffered a stroke in Luling and died on October 14 in a Galveston hospital. His body was conveyed back to Luling, where an array of diverse clergymen eulogized him. He was buried near the site of one his former homes. Fifteen years later, the Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital would go up on the site and now hosts his lovingly tended grave.

On his headstone, you will find his name, his dates, and four simple words:

A MAN OF FAITH.

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