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By Jan Statman
When three discovery wells opened the vast East Texas Oilfield in the winter of 1929 and spring of 1930, the Piney Woods bloomed with the black treasure that would change East Texas forever. It was oil, Black Gold.
The drought of l929 had ruined the cotton crop. King Cotton’s fall undermined the stability of banks in the Gregg County seat of Longview. Still reeling from cotton and banking failures, that city saw the Texas and Pacific Railroad move its terminal to Mineola, taking their employees, their payroll, and the city's prosperity with them. Businesses failed. Homes and farms were lost. Poverty and unemployment were everywhere -And then the Great Depression hit!
Desperate people, eagerly searching for a ray of hope focused on the dream of oil. Oil had been discovered in Ranger, Cisco, Breckenridge, Burkburnett, Eldorado, Amarillo and towns, why not in East Texas? Even that slim hope was dashed when petroleum engineers and geologists of the nation's major oil companies declared there was absolutely no oil whatsoever anywhere in the area.
In spite of those declarations, legendary wildcatter C.M. "Dad" Joiner succeeded in finding oil on Sunday, Oct. 5, 1929 when his discovery well, the Daisy Bradford No.3 blew in a gusher at Turnertown, near Henderson in Rusk County, producing at an unbelievable rate.
"Everybody in town broke their necks to get out there to see the well come in," "Mike" Marwil described the scene. "First you felt the earth tremble and shake, then you saw black oil shooting as high as the derrick. People were beside themselves! They wallowed in the oil! Just swam in it! They rubbed it all over themselves. They had to be told to put out their cigarettes for fear they would blow us all up."
Two months later, on Christmas Day, l929, Ed Bateman's Lou Della Crim No. 3. came in on the Crim Farm outside Kilgore in Gregg County, producing three times the volume of the Daisy Bradford No. 3. The Lou Della Crim well was followed on January 26, l930 by the equally lucrative F.K. Lathrop No. 1, eleven miles to the north and east in Pine Tree, near Longview, also in Gregg County. The three successful "discovery" wells outlined the boundaries of the Great East Texas Oilfield. The "Black Giant" was forty-two miles long and eight miles wide. The sound of the "Boom" was heard around the world.
Engineers and geologists of the major oil companies realized they had made a major mistake. The sudden oil prosperity prompted Longview's Judge Erskine Bramlette to declare, "At last, the waters have opened up to let the Children of Israel out of the land of bondage. The boom is here, and it looks good."
Judge Bramlette did not realize how prophetic his words would be. As America reeled under the shock of the global depression, many Jewish people were among those who found their way to the sleepy towns of East Texas. They came seeking hope in a nation where there was no hope, jobs in a nation where there was no work, opportunity in a nation where there were only "hard times when you're down and out."
"We all came C.O.D," Celia Bergman explained, "That’s Cash-on-Delivery. We didn't have any money, but we had youth, and strength. We were determined to survive the Depression. -And we made it!"
Some went to work in the oilfield itself. Some went into services supplying the oilfields, trading scrap metal, pipe, oil well equipment and supplies. Some opened pipe yards and scrap yards. Others opened small shops to provide necessities to make the lives of oilfield workers and their families bearable.
Some became actively involved in the business of oil. Joe Gerson managed, and was engineer of H.L. Hunt's Parade Refining Company near Turnertown. At a time when oilfield workers worked around the clock, seven days a week, the Travis and Livingston families, Orthodox Jews, shut their cable tool drilling rigs down from Friday evening to Saturday evening in observance of the Sabbath, and allowed their workers a day of rest.
Others worked day and night, forcing their small businesses to succeed by the remarkable effort of their will.
Celia and Dave Bergman came to Longview at night. "The mud was eighteen inches deep and the lights of the drilling rigs were just a-going like fire," Celia said, "They were diamonds in the sky! I was brought up in the oilfield towns of Oklahoma so this looked like home to me. I loved it and we stayed."
Those who could put a few coins together wanted to "get into the action," to buy into a well that would make their dreams come true. Sometimes they did. More often, they did not. Marshall merchant Louis Kariel was involved in a number of leases, which he said, "Helped define the edge of the field."
The old red brick Gregg County Courthouse was overrun by oilmen, wildcatters, speculators and lease hounds. The County Clerk was suddenly the busiest man in town. He was so busy it became necessary for him to form "reading groups" to work in shifts around the clock, researching land titles stored in old record books streaked with dust, faded by time and stuffed into the cobwebbed corners of the old courthouse.
Tent cities grew up overnight. Kilgore swelled from a farming community of 500 to a crowded Boom Town of more than 10,000. Sam Krasner and his brother Barney rode into Kilgore on a truckload of seven-inch pipe. "Kilgore was a booming shack town," he said, "Although some of the town's original buildings could still be seen, most of the buildings were hastily constructed of tin, or sheet iron."
Wells grew up in rose gardens and in door yards. Oil was discovered beneath a bank in downtown Kilgore. A twenty-four foot section was sliced off the rear of six downtown businesses and six wells were sunk into the ground with the legs of their derricks touching. They formed the richest half-acre in the world
There wasn't enough food to feed the hungry "boomers." There wasn't enough room to house them. Strangers slept in chicken coops, on parlor floors, in attic lofts, and outdoors under the open sky.
"When I came home from college that spring, I still had my bedroom," Sarah Richkie Whitehurst said, "Many of my friends could not say as much. People rented rooms and parts of rooms. Some even rented cot space on the parlor floor. Some rented beds for so many hours and when that time was up, someone else came in to sleep."
Those who could find no shelter slept on the courthouse lawn. Joe Riff was fortunate enough to rent a room located diagonally across the Courthouse Square from his store. He said, "Every morning when I walked across the courthouse lawn to go to work, I was obliged to step over the reclining bodies of men and women who were sleeping out in the weather, covering themselves as best they could with old newspapers and shreds of blankets.
Derricks popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. And the rains came down in torrents! It rained forty days and forty nights. Worn by the constant rains and the weight of heavy oil field machinery, the meager country roads turned into narrow ribbons of mud. Old settlers sat on their fretwork front porches and watched their way of life change before their eyes. Some kept their distance from the noisy goings on...and some became wealthy in spite of themselves.
Working as a "lease hound" or land man, Ben Balter attempted to buy the mineral rights to a small farm, but the farmer's widow insisted that he buy the entire farm. "All I want to do is to get away from this crazy place," she told him. -And she did.
The growing need for oilfield law attracted young attorneys. Phillip Brin’s first paycheck was $l5 for a week's work. "In those Depression days you were so happy to have a job you didn't demand to know what you were going to be paid," he explained, "It didn't cost much to live if you could manage to come by the few pennies. We saw many a starving person riding on the railroad boxcars as they came through town."
Doctors were needed. Pediatrician Ben Andres said, "The practice of medicine was a much more personal thing in that day and time. You knew your patient's families, you knew what they did and who they were."
Smiley Rabicoff made a lot of money manufacturing and selling whiskey during Prohibition, but he was out of business when Prohibition was repealed. His father-in-law, Harry Sobol told him, "There's a good opportunity to make a living down here in the Texas oilfield. You buy something. You find somebody to buy it from you. You sell it and you make the difference."
Eighteen year old Adele Daiches was dismayed by her first sight of Kilgore. "When I got off that train at the Kilgore Depot I found the streets were filled with mud. I later learned it was dust, when it was not mud. You had a choice that Spring, dust or mud."
Seventeen year old Milton Galoob drove his old Ford truck from Oklahoma to Longview on two tires and two rims. "I was out of work and hungry. I didn't have money for tires but I knew that if I could manage to get here, my sister Celia Bergman, would find a way to feed me."
Another eighteen year old, Irving Falk, came to the oilfield straight from his family’s New Jersey dairy farm. "I didn't know whether to look up, look down, look sideways, or to just look out for traffic," he said, "Kilgore was a dense forest of oil derricks. There were approximately one thousand oil wells being drilled. There were twenty-five or thirty thousand oil wells in the field. Kilgore alone had a thousand wells. Some wells were producing as much as five thousand barrels a day. Back home in New Jersey, people weren’t able to feed their children, but here in East Texas they were dressed up with gold belt buckles and fancy cowboy boots with silver tips that cost $l50. That was a fortune in those days."
Oilfield workers didn’t trust their money to banks but they trusted the honest Jewish merchants. On payday, the merchants would cash the oilfield workers checks. This meant the merchants would keep a lot of cash on hand on payday, and the crooks knew exactly when payday rolled around.
Nathan Waldman's parents, Joe and Clara Waldman, were robbed at gunpoint. "The robbers marched my parents to the back of the store and told them to sit down," he said, "My mother's diamond wedding ring was exposed and dad kept trying to call her attention to it, trying to warn her to turn the ring around or try to hide it. His frantic warnings became so obvious that the robbers finally said, "Don't worry, mister. We wouldn't take the lady's wedding ring away from her. All we want is your money!"
Thieves, prostitutes, and gamblers swarmed into the towns. Decent citizens were outraged. Help was summoned, and help arrived. One quiet afternoon, four shabbily dressed, strangers stepped from a train outside Kilgore. They drew little attention. Scruffy-looking strangers were hardly uncommon in the oilfield. There was something different about these men though. It was in their proud bearing and clear eyes. Legendary Texas Rangers had come upon the scene.
On a sunny day in early March, the leader of the group, Texas Ranger Sgt. Manuel T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, shed his drifter's disguise. He mounted his spirited black stallion for his famed ride down Kilgore's Main Street. His tanned face was clean-shaven, his boots and spurs gleamed in the morning light. An automatic rifle rested in his saddle holster. His pearl-handled six-shooters were ready at his hip
The cry went up, "It's "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas! He's hard, but he's fair!"
Gonzaullas declared Martial Law and gave the criminals twenty-four hours to get out of town. Many criminals abandoned their belongings in their rush to leave. The Texas Rangers began a series of lightening raids. Three hundred arrests were made that day.
Kilgore had never needed a jail so there was no proper place to hold the prisoners. "Lone Wolf" had trace chains and padlocks secured to a heavy length of chain and run the full length of the Baptist Church. When his prisoners were tethered to it, it was promptly labeled "Lone Wolf's Trot Line."
"Lone Wolf" often determined a man's guilt or innocence by simply looking at his hands. Oilfield workers had rough, work-worn, hands. Crooks and gamblers had soft hands with manicured fingernails. "Lone Wolf's" soft-hand test did not bode well for Hyman Hurwitz, a soft-handed young haberdasher who worked late one night after curfew. "Hyman thought the Rangers wouldn't bother him," his brother, Phillip Hurwitz explained, "No sooner did he step through the door of his shop than "Lone Wolf" picked him up. The Ranger handcuffed Hyman to the "Trot Line," and he remained there until other Jewish merchants came to rescue him."
Hyman Laufer joined the National Guard as a college student during the summer of l93l and was sent to Gladewater where law and order had completely broken down.
"Every thief, every thug, every lawbreaker had found his way into East Texas," he said, "More than that, there was a flood of oil coming out of this field. The governor declared the oilfield off-limits and shut the free production down. Many oilmen resented this and began running "hot oil," that is, illegal oil. The National Guard was expected to patrol the oilfield, but we were often misled.
We would go up to a well and we would see that the valve on the well was operating, so we would turn it off, or we thought we had. Oilmen installed valves that worked in reverse. We would actually be turning it on! There were many other such subterfuges and clever devices to keep the hot oil running."
The discovery of oil meant a return to former prosperity for some East Texans. Vera Remer's family, the Brachfields, lived in Henderson since l874. Her uncle, Charles Brachfield, was a distinguished Rusk County Judge and State Senator. Her father, Mose Marwil, was Mayor of Henderson.
"During the Boom, the streets were filled with people, but they weren't the sort of people you would want to associate with," she said, "Old-timers considered oilfield workers to be roughnecks and riff-raff."
To others it meant a swift ride to unheard-of wealth. East Texas towns saw more than an adequate supply of ostentation. Schoolgirls appeared in classrooms dressed in ball gowns and tiaras. Diamond rings sold like crackerjacks. Before long, the well-known Dallas retail establishments such as Neiman-Marcus and the A.Harris Co. were dressing the beautiful women of East Texas in the latest fashions. Ladies took the Southern Pacific train to Dallas, ate breakfast on the train, shopped, dined in the luxurious dining car and were home before 8:40 in the evening.
"People wanted to dress well," DeeDee Gans explained, "Neiman's was a front runner of fashion, and having Neiman's nearby set the pace for us. A group of us would go into Dallas to shop and have lunch and we would really make a day of it."
"A lot of people will tell you that the Oil Boom was exciting." Celia Bergman remembered. "But for us the exciting part was that we'd open the store at nine o'clock in the morning and we wouldn't leave until l0 o'clock at night."
"We opened the store at 6:30 in the morning," Phil Hurwitz agreed, "Drillers and roughnecks would be going to work at that hour. We'd close the store at nine, ten, eleven o'clock, whenever the last man was off the street. Then we'd go to Mattie's Ballroom and dance all night, take a shower, lie down for an hour, get up and go back to work at 6:30 in the morning. It was an exciting experience for a sixteen year old boy!"
The new East Texans were determined to maintain their Jewish identity in the oilpatch. "At first they met at the different stores," Nathan Waldman explained, "They held Sunday School for the children at Sam Goldman's store, or at Smiley Rabicoff's store. Much of the time it was so hot that they would open the doors, but because of the Blue Laws, the police would make them shut the doors again. Sunday School became really "hot stuff"."
Reform Jews attended High Holy Day Services at Temple Moses Montifiore in Marshall. Orthodox and Conservative Jews held informal High Holy Day Services in the hall above McCarley's Jewelry store in Longview or above the Fire Station in Kilgore. Services were interrupted when the fire alarm sounded, and it sounded often in the oilfield town. The congregation would rush to the windows to see what was on fire and if their help was needed to put the fire out.
The women of Kilgore convinced the men they needed a synagogue. The men said, "Fine, you raise a thousand dollars and we'll raise the rest."
The women took up the challenge. They held a "well baby" contest to determine who was the healthiest baby in town. Doctors examined the babies and selected the winners. Children of many oilfield workers received health check-ups they would otherwise have lacked. The women raised their share and the men came through with their part of the bargain.
Kilgore's Beth Sholom Synagogue was organized in l936. "It was not a very big building," Mendy Rabicoff remembered, "When the congregation outgrew the little building. Hyman Hurwitz located an old wood frame honkeytonk, which was moved to the location and "reformed" to serve as the community's social hall.
The young congregation had some interesting rabbis including the poker playing rabbi, the rabbi with the eccentric wife and the rabbi who was chased by the horse.
"There was a pasture behind the synagogue," Nathan Waldman said. "Our Christian neighbor kept his horse pastured there. The rabbi was dreadfully afraid of the horse and the horse was not too fond of the rabbi either. One Friday evening, the Rabbi decided to take a short cut across the pasture. The horse took offense and ran toward the rabbi. The rabbi ran toward the synagogue. The horse ran faster. The rabbi ran even faster, proving that when properly motivated, an Orthodox rabbi can outrun a Christian horse!"
"We had members from Kilgore, Longview, Henderson, Gladewater, Overton and other towns. We clung together like ducks on a pond," Hyman Laufer said, "We had Sunday School picnics and barbecues, dances and parties. We had a lot of fun and a lot of love. After all, this was our home."
Three discovery wells transformed the region's economy. An economic map of the time described the economically troubled nation with white marks for depressed areas and gray for less troubled areas, but East Texas was inked with solid black. It was the black gold of prosperity.
The Jewish community gathered from many exotic corners of the world, only to find themselves in the most exotic place of all. -East Texas in the Boom!
An except with permission from the new book release “Raisins & Almonds...and Texas Oil!” published by Sunbelt Eakin, Austin, Texas and is available on-line through the publishers, www.eakinpress.com or through Amazon.com. Or may br ordered through any bookstore $26.95
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