Texas Became Texas

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The twentieth century blew into Texas one year and nine days late. On January 10, 1991, two veteran oilmen named Patillo Higgins and Anthony F. Lucas brought in a towering gusher of oil at Spindletop, a scrubby mound just outside the sleepy rice-market town of Beaumont. Until that day, the Texas economy had prospered on cotton and cattle; although pioneer oilmen had tapped a field near Corsicana in 1894, all but a trickle of America’s oil was still being produced east of the Mississippi.

Spindletop changed everything. Eighty thousand barrels poured forth each day from a single well; no one had ever seen anything like it. Within a year, wrote one dazzled geologist, Texas oil was “burning in Germany, England, Cuba, Mexico, New York, and Philadelphia.”

On the theory that there must be more where Spindletop came from, wildcatters scoured Texas until eventually all but fifty of the state’s 254 counties yielded their share of oil. Boom towns proliferated, with such names as Sour Lake, Batson, Humble, Petrolia, Electra, Burkburnett, Mexia, and Goose Creek. The richest find came in Rusk County, where a shrewd old driller named C. M. “Dad” Joiner found a 200-square-mile field; his East Texas Strike yielded more than three billion barrels in the next twenty-five years.

The oil business—and the staggering wealth it created—transformed almost every aspect of Texas life. It scattered oil derricks among her cotton fields and across her cattle ranges, lined her coast with tankers and refineries, colored her politics, and spawned that (mostly) legendary figure, the Texas oil millionaire—Stetsoned, boastful, and almost impossibly rich.