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The Oil Boom’s Roots in East Texas Cotton Farming

Oil’s rise was as dependent on the old as much as the new. The industry also benefited from changes in agriculture.

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A group of prisoners chopping cotton near Huntsville on June 15, 1943.
Photograph Courtesy of AP

We like to think that oil has helped create the modern world we recognize today. But oil’s rise was as dependent on the old as much as the new. In fact, the beginning of the oil era depended on a seemingly timeless farming economy that experienced its own revolution in the ways people earned a living from the land.

The East Texas oil boom provides one of the best case studies for understanding the industry’s connection to other aspects of Texas and United States history. For one, the East Texas Oil Field remains the largest ever in the continental United States, encompassing parts of five Texas counties, particularly Gregg and Rusk Counties. Moreover, the timing of its discovery in the fall of 1930 and the duration of the boom itself overlap almost perfectly with the Great Depression, a period of widespread poverty and massive transformation of American agriculture.

East Texans had suffered financially well before the Depression, as their economy floundered under its dependence on cotton and a long history of underdevelopment. They welcomed the boom. But most farmers in the two core counties received no cash windfall from lease bonuses or royalty payments. These payouts never materialized because the majority of farmers worked as tenants and did not own the land they cultivated.

Many landowners also failed to receive any money—even if rigs drilled their own land. The debts these farmers had accumulated over years of drought and cheap cotton gave ample opportunity for bankers and other people in positions of power to seize their lands. Some landowners lacked clear titles, having never been able to afford the expense of a lawyer who could examine their paperwork.

Black landowners faced particular difficulties in receiving proper recompense for the oil drilled on their property. As W.E.B. Du Bois once noted, on average African Americans across the South owned smaller plots of less fertile land. Such patterns made them particularly vulnerable to taking on debt in times of drought and low crop prices, precisely the conditions that existed prior to the boom. Following the end of slavery, freedpeople received no freedom dues or any type of compensation for their stolen labor. And pathways to buying land in Texas remained difficult even once they had accumulated sufficient capital. Successful black landowners, especially those with substantial holdings, faced racist acts of violence intended to intimidate all of the black people who lived in the area. Particularly sensational attacks, such as the 1911 Slocum Massacre in which many unarmed African-Americans were murdered in and near their homes by a mob of their white neighbors, were covered in newspapers across the nation, and the massacre’s implications for black landowners in the East Texas field, some fifty miles northeast of Slocum, would have been well understood.

One of the oral histories I encountered in my research showed the extent to which racist violence played a clearly defined role in the boom itself. A white oilman recalled how he had failed to sign a lease with a black landowner, because a competing oilman had threatened this landowner’s life. The interviewee noted how he could not compete with someone who “had killed quite a few negroes in Gregg County.” Regardless of the veracity of this claim, everyone, both the white oilman and the black landowner, understood the life-and-death consequences of questioning a person with such a violent reputation. The fact that the interviewee mentions this description in such an offhand, everyday manner reveals a wider society that accepted this violent injustice as a fact of life. Terrorism and oil, it seems, have a long history.

While great riches may have eluded the majority of East Texans, work on the oil rigs allowed many former cotton growers to have a regular income for the first time in their lives. The oil industry acknowledged its connection to Southern farm life. For example, the greenest hands on a drilling site were referred to as “boll weevils.” On the farm, the boll weevil was a voracious beetle that had destroyed cotton crops and served as a symbol for the many reasons behind cotton farming’s decline across the South. Thus the term “boll weevil” shows how people in the oil industry viewed southern cotton farms as their labor pool. As the oil historian Bobby Weaver notes in Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch, this language persists today, though “boll weevil” has since been shortened to “worm.”

The hard work and improvisational mindset of these farm boys proved valuable for the drilling companies. Workers needed the mental and physical strength to withstand long hours of heavy lifting. Faulty boilers or unknown problems deep underground required quick-thinking to prevent costly slowdowns. Yet improvisation on the oil patch would have different consequences than on the cotton patch. Newly minted roughnecks lost limbs and lives as they extemporized their way down to pay dirt—boiler accidents proved especially common in East Texas while sudden releases of gas from deep underground sometimes caused explosions that destroyed whole rigs and killed anyone working on them.  These men contributed to our knowledge of oil drilling, with the field serving as their laboratory, a trial-and-error series that had high costs for some people and big profits for the industry as a whole.

Despite these deadly risks, “boll weevils” flooded into the labor supply of the East Texas Oil Field. During the Great Depression government programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) encouraged farmers to plow up parts of their crop, and many tenants faced eviction as landowners reduced their crop acreage. Both the AAA and oil money provided many landowners with significant capital they could then invest in tractors. These machines, powered with cheap oil, replaced farm families and their mules. Larger corporate farms in places like the North Texas plains used tractors and wage laborers to outcompete the smaller farms of East Texas.

The oil industry did not just contribute to this revolution in Texas agriculture—it benefited from these changes. As more and more people left their farms, they provided a massive pool of cheap labor for the oil companies.  Mr. A. C. Hopper, once a roughneck himself, later claimed, “you could get most any kind of man for little or nothing.” Cheaper oil, cheaper labor, and more tractors created a cycle that proved hard to resist, and which shaped both the agriculture and oil industries.

This move off the farm occurred across all of East Texas and the cotton-growing South. In the twenties, to promote improved farming techniques and stem the decline of cotton farming, the Dallas Morning News and its imprint the Semi-Weekly Farm News held a contest to see which Texans could grow the most cotton on five acres of land. My great-grandfather John McFarlane, who farmed on the outskirts of Palestine, entered the contest in 1924 and won first prize, earning him a sizable cash prize and many visitors who wanted to learn the secret to his success. He won first prize again in 1927 and secured his place as the “Cotton King” of Texas. Though his farm was not as large as the state’s corporate farms, McFarlane was one of the state’s best and most efficient cotton farmers. Yet partly because of the changes happening across East Texas, none of his children became cotton farmers, and one even set out to become an oilman himself.

Of course the land on which the Cotton King raised so much cotton remains. Bisected by the highway loop that skirts downtown Palestine, the former site of the farm now holds a Walmart Supercenter, one of the first such centers built in Texas. Walmart too symbolizes much of these histories of agriculture and oil: Walmart’s rise can be explained as much by cheap oil and low-cost workers pushed off the land as it can by imports from China. In this process the old farm place has gone from being on the edge of town to becoming the center of Palestine’s social and economic orbit. Oil served as a catalyst in the creation of this now familiar geography which we drive through, but oil’s role cannot be understood without also considering the history of farming or the South. Though interpretations of these overlapping histories will differ, confirming hopes or fears for the future, there remains a thread of our own personal history that ties each of us to the past.

Scot McFarlane is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University writing his dissertation on the Trinity River and the relationship between cities and the countryside.  His article, “Oil on the Farm: The East Texas Oil Boom and the Origins of an Energy Economy” will be published by the Journal of Southern History this November. When he is not in the library, Scot leads history tours of New York City and also gives public talks on East Texas history during his research trips back in Texas.  

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  • Scott Simpson

    my award winning 9-hour mini-series, Kilgore Crude, is about this very topic. You can learn more about it here: https://www.scottsimpsonnyc.com/