Let’s Make a Deal

If Dad Joiner had said no in 1930 he could have been H.L. Hunt.

Pick up a history of the Texas oil industry, or of the big figures in oil, and chances are it will include a photograph taken one day in October 1930 showing a group of men in front of an oil rig. Sometimes the photograph is cropped to show only two of the men: Columbus Marion Joiner (called Dad), the man who promoted the well, and A.D. Lloyd (called Doc), a self-taught geologist who provided the “scientific” support for Joiner. Usually they are the only two people identified in the captions. But there is another man in the picture, a tall, heavy man with a boater straw hat on his head, a big cigar in his mouth, wearing a white shirt with a tie blowing in the breeze. That man is H. L. Hunt, who had come over from Arkansas to see what Joiner was up to. Hunt had heard about the Joiner promotion from some people he knew in

El Dorado who had developed a tool for testing oil wells that they were going to use in Joiner’s well. He came over to Rusk County, where Joiner was drilling, took a room in a hotel in nearby Henderson, the county seat, and watched and waited. When the well test showed oil in the well, Hunt bought some cheap leases near Joiner’s well. They had to be cheap, because he was just about broke. Then on a humid Sunday in early October, before an audience of local farmers and sightseers, Joiner’s crew got the well to erupt over the top of the slapdash wooden derrick, and another boom was on, the one that H.L. Hunt had been waiting for.

It wasn’t much of a well, despite its initial roar, but it was enough to start the usual hysterical rush for leases, beds, food, booze, and money. The Joiner well—known as Daisy Bradford No. 3, after the woman on whose land Joiner had drilled three times in three years—had tapped the largest pool of oil ever found in the United States. But the boom began before anybody knew that, for reasons that had little to do with what was under the ground. That part of East Texas always had been a poor country of small farmers trying to make a living from patches of corn and cotton. It was the Texas equivalent to Appalachia, out of the mainstream and going nowhere. There had been oil in the region before, in Van Zandt and Navarro counties and elsewhere. And oil people had taken a look at Rusk and Gregg counties over the years, even drilling some wells sometimes. But nobody authoritative figured there was anything there, though the Humble company held onto some leases because they were cheap.

Aside from that, there was no major oil company interest in what Joiner was doing. That part of East Texas just didn’t look like serious oil country.

For Joiner, that didn’t mean anything. In fact, the absence of any major company interest probably even made the place more appealing to him, because he was the classic promoter for whom the raising of money and the search were the game. Joiner had leased up about 10,000 acres in the Twenties and raised money by selling off pieces of his leases. He had been an oil promoter for 30 years or so, and he had even drilled in a couple of places where oil later was found by others. But that probably was sheer luck, though some people think it indicated some special sense about where oil was. What Joiner unquestionably did have was the ability to talk people, especially women, out of money and whatever else he needed from them. That talent may have been his most important resource, but it was well enough known so that it also became a weak point, a way to get to him.

So here is this old-time oil promoter, 70 years old by this time, with nothing to show for his years of wandering and hustling except this broken-down oil rig that barely made a hole. Joiner had hustled just about everybody in the area over the years he drilled on Daisy Bradford’s farm. He traveled to El Dorado, to Dallas, to Oklahoma, peddling shares in his scheme. He paid for haircuts, clothing, and meals with the pieces of paper that represented interests in what he was going to find. A college boy vacationing in his father’s oilfield supply house once lent Joiner a hundred dollars and couldn’t even get him to sign the document that would give him a quarter interests in a lease in return for the loan. As it turned out, five other people also had quarter interests in the lease, so Joiner gave him a sixty-fourth interest in something else instead.

“Joiner knew when he sold more than he had. I’m sure he always had it all in his head,” this man told me.

But in those days, the local people and the widows took Joiner’s funny paper and put up money and haircut and food and firewood for the boiler that powered his drill and hard labor too—because his crew often got leases instead of pay. But they wanted to believe in this smooth talker who kept promising that he was going to find an ocean of oil for them. The Roaring Twenties and the marvelous speculative orgy in Wall Street had passed them by. They desperately wanted a piece of some kind of dream, and Joiner’s was the only one in town, so they kept buying in. When Joiner turned the dream into reality for a change, the burst of excitement was inordinate, even for an oil boom, because it was fueled by all that local hope and by the fact that the major companies had passed it by, so the price of leases was still relatively cheap.

About all that many of Joiner’s backers knew or cared about his project was contained in a geological map of the area prepared by Doc

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