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The Great Black Giant

On a dream – and a bit too close to her garden – the old wooden derrick was skidded to its third location on Mrs. Daisy Bradford’s 970 acre, East Texas farm… this would be the one.
This article appeared in Vol. 12, No. 2 - 2015

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'The men that made it possible'. (Source: Hunt Oil Company)

By 1930, Texas was already the nation’s leading oil producing state, yet East Texas remained the only area of the state that had not obtained high-volume oil production in spite of having the state’s first oil discovery. The Daisy Bradford #3 would change that, triggering Texas’s largest oil boom yet. 

Driven by Oil

Texas oil and gas map showing locations of current oil and gas activity as well as some of the original discoveries. Before the Civil War, explorers in East Texas noted oil floating on the waters of Oil Springs and in December 1859, only four months after the Drake discovery at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, Lyne Barret leased 279 acres near the springs. He drilled Texas’s first oil discovery on the leases in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The well came in at 10 bpd at a depth of 32m, but soon failed. 

Oil Springs yielded rich, high-gravity lubrication oil and remained a teaser, but the experts of that era never considered the area favorable for commercial production. Exploitation of this discovery would not occur until widespread development of eastern US fields following the Drake discovery (see The First Wildcat - A True Adventure). Ninety wells were drilled in the Oil Springs area over a three-year period starting in 1887. Texas’s first oil production came from wells at depths that ranged from 30 to 76m and initial production ranged from one to six barrels per day. By 1890, this noncommercial field had produced only about 54 barrels of oil but is significant in that it marks the beginning of the oil fever that would soon spread across this huge state. 

South of Dallas, the state’s first commercial oil discovery occurred inadvertently while the city of Corsicana was drilling for water in 1895. At first, there was a limited local market for the Corsicana field crude and operators would dump the surplus out on the ground, leading to the passage of the first state regulation in 1899 regarding drilling, casing, plugging and abandoning of oil and gas wells. A refinery was completed that same year and annual production soon increased to a high of 839,554 bo in 1900. An important outgrowth of the state’s first oil boom was the development of more efficient hydraulic rotary drilling rigs, at the time known as ‘Corsicana rigs’, that replaced cable tools in the field in 1898 and were soon used throughout the oil and gas industry. 

The Texas oil-driven economy really got going when, on January 10, 1901, a geyser of oil erupted from the drilling site at Spindletop in the Gulf Coast region of Texas. Oil exploration expanded from the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Plain, north to the Texas Panhandle, and to the Permian Basin of west Texas. This was a time when oil discoveries were fueling growth all over the state; by 1919, 28,000 wells had been drilled, and 85% were paying producers. 

The Discovery 

While in Galveston in 1926, Columbus M. ‘Dad’ Joiner had a dream, one so vivid he sketched the rolling hills and the small stream where he knew he could ‘get a well’. A wildcatter and schemer, Dad Joiner had earlier teamed up with A. D. ‘Doc’ Lloyd, who claimed to be a Fort Worth geologist, to make an oil discovery in Oklahoma in 1917. Joiner had leased Daisy Bradford’s farm in 1922 and his ‘dream’, along with Doc Lloyd’s advice, cemented the drilling location. 

  • Columbus M. (Dad) Joiner and A. D. ‘Doc’ Lloyd, the wildcatters, pictured with the land owner, Daisy Bradford. (Source: East Texas Oil Museum)

  • Believed to have been taken during the reaming phase of the well prior to testing. (Source: East Texas Oil Museum)

  • Cars line the roadway in anticipation of the Daisy Bradford #3 October 3rd testing. These photos are believed to be taken by C. S. Nicks, who travelled the Texas countryside equipped with his own darkroom. (Source: East Texas Oil Museum)

The first well was started in 1927 and a second in 1928. They were always plagued with drilling problems and a constant shortage of funding: after all, interest in the area was waning after the drilling of 17 dry holes into the prospective reservoir, the Woodbine sand. Both the early wells on the property were failures, not even reaching their objective. For their third attempt, the crew skidded the rig 90m downhill from the first well and started drilling on May 8, 1929. 

They made 366m in the first two days, then progress slowed due to lack of funds to keep the crew and rig working. The team sometimes burned tires to keep the boilers going and worked Sundays so visitors and possible investors could see the well in operation. It would take nearly a year and a half and several lease extensions to reach a depth of 1,095m. Oil shows were encountered in the Woodbine, but a local scout believed the cuttings had been ‘salted’ in order to get more interest in their underfunded operation and leases. On September 5, 1930 a drill stem test showed some oil and gas in the mud. 

A decision was made to upgrade the drilling rig and run casing in an attempt to make a well out of it. Once word got out that they were drilling out the plug of cement, eight to ten thousand East Texans made the trip to ‘see something happen’. Locals rented parking for 25 cents a car and vendors sold food, soft drinks, and local corn liquor. The first day passed and the bailing operation continued for a second day, removing all the mud from the hole, yet still no oil. The crew started swabbing the well on the third day and some black fluid was beginning to show. After countless trips, a gurgling sound could be heard by the crowd. Finally, on October 3, 1930, oil spirted from the casing and over the crown block, and those gathered there also gave vent to their emotions with a loud cheer. The crew worked through the night and made over 5,000 bpd. The boom was on and, at least in this area, the Great Depression was all but forgotten. 

  • The men that made it possible. Pictured with the drilling crew are Doc Lloyd shaking hands with Dad Joiner and to the right, with the hat and cigar, is Haroldson Lafayette ‘H. L.’ Hunt, who helped finance the testing of the discovery well. This photo is believed to have been taken by C. S. Nicks during the first drill stem test on September 5, 1930. (Source: Hunt Oil Company)

Rapid Appraisal 

After area operators became familiar with the structure and subsurface conditions, wells were completed in a short six days. Only two months after the discovery, the No. 1 Ashby came in at 3,000 bopd 1.6 km west of the Daisy Bradford well. In late December, 1930, near Kilgore, Texas, 16 km from the initial discovery well, Bateman Oil Company’s well blew in at 22,000 bopd, and a third well 24 km further north came in at 18,000 barrels each day in January, 1931. The distance between the discoveries convinced most geologists and engineers that these wells had found separate oilfields. It would not take long for wildcatters to drill more wells and the supergiant East Texas field to be delineated. Within six months of these discoveries, 100 wells were completed each day and production climbed to over 1,000,000 bopd by August, 1931. Texas Governor Ross Sterling ordered the entire East Texas oil field shut down on August 17, 1931 to stop rampant illegal production and to prevent waste. The field resumed production on September 5 under a new proration order that limited production to 400,000 bopd, enforced by the Mounted Texas National Guard and Texas Rangers. 

In spite of the brief field shutdown in 1931, the next year would be the field’s busiest, averaging 22.6 completions each day and ending up with 9,384 producers, a gain of 5,652 wells that year. This would turn out be the largest and most productive field ever discovered in the contiguous US with over 5 billion barrels produced from a field 70 km long and 20 km wide. 

  • The original East Texas discovery well still pumps oil for the Hunt Company from a field that was, at the time, the largest ever discovered and remains the largest and most prolific oil reservoir ever found in the contiguous US. (Source: Paul L. Gleiser)

H. L. Hunt’s ‘Greatest Business Coup’ 

Haroldson Lafayette ‘H. L.’ Hunt got his start in the oil business in El Dorado, Arkansas, arriving in town shortly after Busey-Armstrong No. 1 discovered oil on January 10, 1921. To start, he borrowed $50 and joined the lease traders and speculators meeting at the Garret Hotel. By 1925, at 36 years old, Hunt had become a successful oil man, and was married with three children. 

Meanwhile, Dad Joiner was across the border in East Texas acquiring leases. He formed additional ‘syndicates’ and sold far more lease certificates than he could possibly redeem in order to keep the drilling operation going. 

On the invitation of Daisy Bradford’s brother, Hunt drove from Arkansas to observe the drill stem test on the No. 3 well. Even though it was not successful, it did have a surge of mud, oil, and gas; enough that Hunt bought nearby leases. After the Daisy Bradford No. 3 blew in, Joiner was in a Dallas court with the legal mess that the oversold syndicate certificates created. His holdings were put in receivership by the court. 

Knowing previous wells to the east of Joiner’s discovery were dry, Hunt was convinced a sizable field lay to the west. He knew the No. 1 Ashby was drilling 1.6 km west of the discovery and sent scouts to monitor its progress. Hunt borrowed $30,000 from a close friend and met Joiner at the Dallas Baker Hotel on November 25 and 26, 1930. On November 26, Hunt’s scouts reported the Ashby well found an oil-rich Woodbine sand. Four hours later, Joiner sold all his holdings, including 5,000 leased acres, to Hunt for $1,335,000. For Hunt, this was his ‘greatest business coup’. 

It took Hunt ten years to settle all the lawsuits associated with the lease holdings, but put him in the middle of the East Texas field, which provided the financial base for starting Hunt Oil Company in 1934. Originally headquartered in Tyler, Texas and moved to Dallas, the Hunt family of companies became one of the largest privately held companies in the world.

Daisy Bradford wellhead, 1975. (Source: Hunt Oil Company)

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