When Lynis Taliaferro Barret first discovered oil in Melrose, Texas, he had no idea how priceless his discovery was. In fact, Barret traded in his well and went back to selling groceries, convinced oil would never turn a profit. Ironically, most of Texas’s original oil tycoons were searching for water, not oil, and some were angry when instead of water they struck oil.
In 1894, Texas finally had its first major discovery while drilling for water in Corsicana. At the time, they did not know how lucrative it would become. In 1901, Texas experienced its most famous oil discovery of all time at Spindletop, near Beaumont. This discovery created a sensation akin to the California Gold Rush.
The Discovery of Texas Gold
Before this discovery, Texas was almost entirely rural. Its two main industries were cotton and cattle. Once people found that oil could make a man rich, the Texas Oil Boom ushered them into the era that was later known as the Gusher Age.
The Spindletop Gusher started as nothing more than the dream of a crazy one-armed mechanic named Patillo Higgins, who believed that the future of energy would be oil, not coal. Higgins was so sure that oil lay beneath a salt dome at Spindletop that nobody could dissuade him. This earned him the nickname the prophet of Spindletop. A self-taught geologist, Higgins thought that the dome called Sour Hill Mound had the exact conditions for an oil discovery, but knowledge about oil was uncommon at that time, so Higgins was mocked by virtually everyone, even local newspapers.
Undeterred, Higgins found a few partners and created the Gladys City Oil and Manufacturing Company. However, three attempts to find oil failed due to shifting sand and unstable clay under the dome. The partners were not happy. Higgins kept his oil leases but resigned from the company. He then found a new partner named Anthony Lucas. Finally, with the help of better equipment and a more efficient drilling team, the well they hoped would produce five barrels of oil sprung the biggest gusher the world had ever seen. The first year, Spindletop produced over three million barrels, and by year two they produced seventeen million barrels.
Texas’s Newfound Wealth
Following the discovery at Spindletop, oil fever spread throughout Texas with major discoveries being made at Electra Fields in Wichita and at the Daisy Bradford No. 3, to name a few. The oil industry did not just affect oil tycoons and their families; all of Texas was reshaped by this newfound wealth. With oil being plentiful, railroads converted from coal to oil, and steamships soon followed. Automobiles became more common, and roads were soon paved.
The State of Texas enforced a tax on oil production and began funding public schools and universities. Because of oil, the University of Texas and Texas Technical College were formed, making education more available. Towns and cities began to pop up around oil-rich areas, and the newly wealthy oil tycoons and their wives wanted to show off their money. This brought an abundance of fashion, arts, and autos as clothiers such as Neiman Marcus were formed to cater to the wealthy. Before this, people had to visit places like New York or Boston to experience fashion and the arts, but oil and the money it produced brought the finer things in life to what was once just roughneck towns and frontier lands. In fact, oil changed the face of Texas so drastically that movies like 1940’s Boom Town popped up, attempting to capture the phenomenon. The movie, which starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Heddy Lamar, was popular with audiences. However, locals did not feel that Hollywood producers understood Texas and hungered for something with which they could identify.
The Iron Orchard
In 1960, Edmund Van Zandt, a Fort Worth native who had worked for the General American Oil Company before joining the Fort Worth National Bank, secretly penned a novel called The Iron Orchard under the pseudonym Tom Pendleton. He wanted to capture all the interesting characters he had met in the business. This work of fiction spoke crudely and honestly about the craze that surrounded the oil boom.
Edmund was worried about Fort Worth’s reaction to a novel that told some of the uglier truths about oil. The book chronicled the fortunes won and lost, the many lives ended, and the addictive quality of the Texas oil business. Oil was a gamble, and it turned ordinary Texans into gamblers. At times, oil could be wonderful, but other times, it was an ugly, cut-throat business that could destroy one man’s life while advancing another’s. Van Zandt’s book captured the quick rise and even quicker downfall of many who drilled endlessly in the Texas dirt searching for wealth.
Surprisingly, the book became a hit with Texans and had a huge cult following. In Fort Worth, members of high society were even having Iron Orchard-themed parties celebrating the book, feeling that it was the most accurate depiction ever written about the oil industry. The book became so popular that Hollywood tried to make it into a movie several times. In the late 1960s, James Lee Barrett, writer of Shenandoah and The Green Berets, wrote a script for The Iron Orchard. The producers were talking about having Paul Newman or Elvis Presley play the lead role. However, the Van Zandts did not like the script, and for unknown reasons, the movie fell through.
Texas natives like Ty Roberts, who was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Texas oil men, fell in love with the book, claiming that it is the closest one could come to understanding the nature of the oil business in Texas. A movie director who had made numerous films in Venezuela, Roberts never forgot about the movie that hit closest to home . . . The Iron Orchard.
When the opportunity to direct the film arrived, Roberts saw it as his duty to be a part and ensure The Iron Orchard was authentic. The cast and crew, with the exception of one or two actors, was made up of Texans, many of whom have ties to the oil industry. In fact, Edmund Van Zandt’s son Ned even played a role and gave his warm stamp of approval for the movie that producers had been trying to make for 60 years.
“I wanted to really capture Texas and the culture of Texas . . . The dichotomy of the ‘total Texas cowboy’ types, and the blue bloods that love New York and Europe, and how they are really the same people,” Roberts said. “But in a way, this [film] is also the story of my dad and my granddad, as well as the story of Jim McNeely.”
Some might also say it is the story of how Texas became what it is today. The film chronicles the life of Jim McNeely (played by Lane Garrison) and his crazy rise from the bottom to become a successful Texas wildcatter. It will debut in select theaters in late February to early March 2019. So far, the importance of the movie has not been lost on audiences. At Austin Film Festival, it won the Audience Award. At the Mystic Film Festival, it won Best Narrative Feature, and at the Lone Star Film Festival (LSFF) it won Best of Fest. The movie also sold out at LSFF’s premiere.
Roberts is hopeful that the movie will be even more successful when it hits Texas theaters. He is hoping the film will resonate with Texans, especially those from places like Big Springs, Gail, Snyder, Midland, Colorado City, Austin, and the many other parts of Texas where the movie was filmed. Roberts said he was stunned at all the support he received from Texas oil producers, hotel owners, and the numerous people from around the state who went above and beyond to ensure this important movie became a reality.
Roberts also said it was a privilege to be a part of the movie and to help tell a story that in many ways is deeply personal. The story is significant not only to him, but to the many people who have loved, lost, and were influenced by loved ones who were a part of the Texas Oil Boom.