NEW: A BRIEF SUMMARY OF OIL INDUSTRY FOLKLORE
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF OIL INDUSTRY FOLKLORE
Herman K. Trabish
ABSTRACT: Sometime in the late nineteenth century, There’s GOLD in them thar hills!” transmuted into There’s OIL out there! As the oilfield pioneers left the Pennsylvania and Baku regions and took the industry to the farthest corners of the world, they created their own legends and lore. The premier chronicler of oil’s lore was historian and folklorist Mody Coggin Boatright. Building on field research which recorded the realities of oilfield life, he documented the tales that grew around the realities and how they grew taller as time passed. If not every well came in, each had its story. Real people transmuted into indelible character types. Finally, the real life of Gilbert Morgan of Callensburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, gave forth Gib Morgan, the greatest oil industry hero of them all.
Sometime in the late nineteenth century, There’s GOLD in them thar hills! became There’s OIL out there! Dreams of success turned ordinary men into oilmen ready to roam where ever they thought they might find a producing well. There is a tale about an oilman who arrives at a small isolated town where there is an oil boom. It might be Texas or California or Sumatra. He can find no accommodations. Not wanting to sleep outside, he begins making the rounds of the public houses, asking everyone if they have heard about the strike elsewhere. Eventually, his invented rumor takes hold and he encounters men who ask him about the elsewhere strike. By midnight the public houses are clearing and there is a lot of traffic leaving town. Accommodations become available. But our oilman does not take a room. Unable to resist even his own invented rumor, he is off to see about the strike elsewhere.
Eventually, that story turned into one about an oilman who, on dying and going to heaven, is told by Saint Peter at the Heavenly Gates that he will have to go to Purgatory and wait because all the oilmen’s places in Heaven are filled. The oilman smiles sadly and accepts this dictate but requests and is granted temporary admission for a visit with his friends. While chatting with the oilmen in Heaven, he casually mentions rumors of oil discoveries in Purgatory. Soon, his invented rumor spreads and eventually comes back to him. He notices movement in the crowd and, then, space clearing. Finally, he decides it is time to move on. At the Pearly Gates, he meets Saint Peter, who tells him there is now room for him. Sorry, the oilman says, I’ve heard a rumor and I think I’ll go Downstairs and explore. (Boatright 1963, p. 196).
As the oilfield pioneers left the Pennsylvania and Baku regions and took the industry to the farthest corners of the world, they created their own legends and lore. The premier chronicler of oil’s lore was historian and folklorist Mody Coggin Boatright (Fig. 1) of the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Folklore Society. He built on field research done in the 1920s and 1930s by numerous folklorists and colleagues. They took notes and audio taped the recollections of men who had worked the oilfields all the way back to the days of Colonel Drake. Amid a storehouse of oilfield tales, characters, themes, types and lore, Boatright found and chronicled oil’s greatest hero, Gib Morgan (Fig. 2). He called the Gib Morgan folklore:
…equal to the best in the Crockett Almanacs and superior to the best in the Paul Bunyan legend. This lore, richly imaginative and often satirical, is known…wherever oil is produced in the United States. It is known…wherever American oil crews and technicians have gone. (Speck 1973, p. 62).
In the Gib Morgan lore, oil region humor was transmuted. The difficulties of finding a place to sleep in a boomtown oil
camp, for example, turned into the tall tale about Gib Morgan’s hotel. In Beaumont to drill at the time of the Spindletop boom, Gib Morgan finds beds so scarce men rent them in 8-hour shifts. So Gib builds his own hotel:
The building was forty stories high with ten high-speed elevators…[On each floor] there was a narrow gauge railroad with a train waiting to take them to their rooms. In each room was a number of taps—one for ice water, one for Bourbon, one for rye, and one for Scotch, one for Tom Collins, one for old fashioned, and so on…Every guest would go to bed with a [highly valued] south or east exposure. But when those who had gone to bed first would wake up in the morning, they would look out through [chillier, shadier] north or west windows…Gib’s hotel was mounted on a turntable, but by the time his guests found out, they were so pleased with the service, especially the spigot service, that they didn’t mind. (GM, #40).
Boarding house food in places like Titusville and Beaumont was not always as satisfying or plentiful as home cooking. Familiar jokes about it emerged. For example, they told one about a driller who, cautioned by his landlady that the butter he was slathering on his less than delicious biscuit was expensive, smilingly replied, And worth every damn penny you paid! (Boatright 1963, p. 197). Another driller was wearily napping on the porch until his landlady’s supper was ready. At the ringing of the bell, he startled awake and the boarding house hound began howling: What are you howling at? the driller growled, You don’t have to eat it. (Boatright 1963, p. 197).
In the tall tale transmutation, Gib builds his own boarding house in West Virginia in which he serves delicious buckwheat cakes, keeping the recipe …a trade secret… He draws so many oil field workers he is forced to develop mass production methods:
He bought a dozen of the largest concrete mixers and steam engines to turn them…Into these mixers his workmen dumped flour and milk and eggs…[the batter] was turned into a pipe line leading to the kitchen. The griddles were bottoms of 43,000-barrel oil tanks, each heated by a gas well underneath it…Seven big strapping men skimmed over the hot surface of each griddle continuously [on sides of bacon fat under their feet]…followed by another crew who handled the batter hoses…Another crew with shovels turned the cakes…a fourth took them up and tossed them to the waiters…Melted butter and maple syrup flowed through pipes along the half-mile counters, and at each seat were spigots from which the customer drew…Gib fed twenty-five thousand oil field workers at a time…[He] had to put up a sign: ONLY DRILLERS AND TOOL DRESSERS FED HERE. (GM, #39)
I. THE MYTH, THE TALL TALES, AND THE STORIES
According to Boatright, a myth in very general terms may be taken to be a story whether true or not that is …associated with the most cherished values of the believers. (Speck 1973, p. 108). The singular myth of the oil industry, around which all the others grew, was the myth of the man and his well. Remarkably, it was sometimes a true story. After many retellings, it was essentially the same story, whether told of Drake in Titusville (Fig. 3), of Patillo Huggins (Fig. 4) and Captain Lucas at Spindletop (Fig. 5), D’arcy in Persia (Fig. 6) or Dad Joiner (Fig. 7) in East Texas: An unlikely man falls into a search for oil. (Drake was a retired train conductor drafted because he had a free railroad pass. Huggins was a Sunday school teacher who observed gas vents on picnics. D’arcy (Brice 2004) was a patriotic gold miner drafted into the service of Great Britain. Dad Joiner was a gigolo.) Fate taps the man on the shoulder. He becomes convinced and then obsessed, yet he finds no oil. Time and funds are expended. Those who hold the power and the purse call off the search. Just past the eleventh hour, the obsessed hero brings home the gusher. It is the stuff of
melodrama, but it really happened, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, in Persia and in oil country all over the world. Tales grew around these realities and they grew taller as time passed. Indelible character types were born: the Geologist and the Doodlebugologist, the Promoter-Trickster, the brave Shooter, the cowboy Driller, the newly rich Landowner, the Oil Field Dove. And from the real life of Gilbert Morgan of Callensburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, came the greatest oil industry Hero of them all.
Tall tales often begin as jokes and often these jokes remain in the tale. An example would be an episode from Texas tall tale character Pecos Bill’s infancy. His parents had to leave him alone in the cabin while they plowed the fields. From a distance, they saw a panther go into the cabin. Bill’s mother wanted to run to the cabin. Dang panther, Bill’s father calmly said to her without reacting, Ain’t gonna get any help from me. Ought to have more sense than to go in there when Bill’s there. (Speck 1973, p. 8)
The tall tales about Casey Jones (Fig. 8) might have begun as jokes among rural passengers about how slow the trains were: This train is so slow I should walk, a man remarks to his fellow passenger. Why don’t you? asks the fellow. My family isn’t expecting me until train time, the man answers. Or: A conductor is summoned to a female passenger exhibiting labor pains. You should not have got on the train in that condition, the conductor tells her. I wasn’t when I got on, she answers. (Speck 1973, p. 59)
There is a present-day story that comes down from the early days of oil about a bumbling roughneck who finally aggravates the driller beyond tolerance when he accidentally drops a tool deep into the well. After a long shut down, the driller finally fishes the tool out and hands it to the bumbler. Here’s your tool, you’re fired. Angry at the driller’s intolerance, the roughneck takes the tool, walks to the well, drops it back in, turns to the driller and says, You can’t fire me ‘cause I quit! (Bartlett 1979, p. 210-211)
Such humor was common in early oil industry stories and tall tales. The many phrases commonly used to describe the enthusiastic promoters and unscrupulous profiteers who plagued oil discoveries were gathered into a popular song lyric, FAMOUS OIL-FIRMS by 'E. Pluibus Oilum':
There’s Ketchum and Cheatum,
And Lure ‘em and Beatum,
And Swindleum all in a row,
Then Coax ‘em and Lead ‘em,
And Leech ‘em and Bleed ‘em,
And Guzzle ‘em, Sink ‘em and Co.
There’s Gull ‘em and Skinner,
And Gammon and Sinner,
R. Askal and Oil and Son,
With Spongeum and Fleeceum,
And Strip ‘em and Grease ‘em,
And the Take ‘em in Brothers and Run.
There were more verses. (Boatright 1963, p. 93)
Three jokes became a tall tale about Gib Morgan’s three hunting dogs. In a terrible collision with a splintered tree while chasing a rabbit, the very swiftest dog is split in half. Gib:
…grabbed up the halves, rubbed them with Kier’s Seneca oil, a bottle of which he always carried in his pocket for such emergencies, slapped them together and put them down. The dog ran on after the rabbit and soon caught it.
Unfortunately, as Gib quickly notices, …he had put two legs up and two legs down. But the dog is even faster than before:
He simply spun around like a cartwheel with such momentum that he could overhaul any rabbit in the Allegheny valley…Gib neglected to take out a patent, however, and it wasn’t long before his neighbors began splitting their dogs open…
When Gib attempts to help his coon dog by axing a groundhog the dog is endlessly chasing in and out of its hole, Gib accidentally axes the dog.
Gib was awfully blue about killing his faithful coon dog but he had one comfort: it happened so quick that he was convinced to this day that the dog never knew for sure whether it was Gib or the groundhog that killed him.
Gib’s greyhound is the only animal that can keep up with Torpedo, Gib’s fantastically swift horse. Once prevented from bringing his greyhound into the passenger car on …the fastest [train] on the Pennsylvania line… Gib decides, rather than stow the dog with the baggage, to leash it to the rear car to run alongside the track. When the train is traveling at 150 miles per hour, the conductor suggests Gib check on the dog. Gib can’t see the greyhound until he looks under the coach, where he sees it running along on three legs. He hadn’t been crippled. One of the wheels had developed a hot box and the dog was trying to cool it off. (GM, #48).
Long after the originator of the Gib Morgan stories had died, journalist Harry Botsford heard a modern-day Gid Morgan in a bar telling a yet wilder tall tale. This Gid allows his female canary, Jen, to escape and mate with a bumblebee …almost as big as a hummin’bird… For a while there are no consequences.
Then the wells started to go dry, alarmingly. One day I heard buzzing and the beating of thousands of wings. There they was—whickles, thousands of them. A whickle is a cross between a bumblebee and a canary. Two divisions of the critters was streaming out of the casing head of an old well. Then I remembered my history. Whickles, unlike birds or insects, live on oil, and that was why the wells had been goin’ dry. Fact! They had been sippin’ thousands of barrels of oil right out from under our noses.
He spots the canary and the bumblebee, remembers Jen’s fondness for applejack and spills some, trying to lure them to capture. They escape. That night six horses, three cows and a travelin’ evangelist was stang to death. He goes to Harrisburg, gets a bounty put on whickles and sets out to
…save this great industry from further depredations of these dastardly whickles…All I need is a gallon of applejack, which I sprinkle on the bushes. As a rule, I get a dozen or so whickles. Of course, I lose some of the applejack. I scalp the whickles and mail the scalps to the governor, and right now he owes me round eighty thousand dollars. (Botsford 1942, p. 72)
This may or may not constitute real literature. …[T]he westward-moving men of action, Boatright wrote, unhampered by any high-falutin' theories of art, created their own literature. (Speck 1973, p. 70). If what we find in what comes down to us of oil industry humor and legend is not a sophisticated literature, it is a kind of lore. Like the pioneers before them, the early oilmen were primarily interested in the facts surrounding them. The shortcomings of the stories were due less to mean-spiritedness than to self-centeredness. As an academic, Boatright wrote books and essays, as have others, finely defining mythology, folklore and legend. But he left no doubt that there was something intrinsically valuable in what his research discovered. Each occupation he observed, has its lore—partly belief, partly custom, partly skills—expressed in anecdotes, sagas, tales and the like…Our culture is the richer for this… (Speck 1973, p. 118-19).
Like their lore and legend, the workers developed a language all their own. Folklorists have collected lists of oilfield terms that named tools of the trade, like bull wheel, Christmas tree, headache post and thief. Other words that came out of the oilfields are more familiar. From the prevalent felines of the northwestern Pennsylvania forests may have come the word often used to describe those bold enough in life to strike out on their own: Wildcatters. Roughnecks and roustabouts may have been epithets invented as oil business slang but eventually named any vigorous, multitalented workers:
Today’s oil rig roustabout, clearly distinguished from the roughneck and lower in the pecking order, is told, 'Just keep your head down and your ass up and push, you’ll do all right.' (Bartlett 1979, p.61).
Doodlebuggery (a.k.a. doodlebugology) was the use of any unscientific process to find the buried treasure. Before science became reliable, random chance made it seem a viable option. Oilman O.W. Killam told Boatright, Understand, I don’t recommend doddlebugging to anybody, but it just seems to work out for me better than anything else, and it’s very inexpensive, except the expense you use in drilling dry holes. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 160).
Tales of Strange Technology
Equally ephemeral means of discovery made magic of the search for oil. Repeated many times and places is the story of the landowner who has psychic dreams predicting the place to drill and will not grant the oilman his lease until he commits to drilling that place. After getting dry holes at more likely sites, the oilman drills and gets oil where the dream promised he would. Every oilfield had its psychics and seers. The divining rod (a magic stick or twig, usually Y-shaped), used to “witch water” in the rural American west, transmuted into many types of devices promising to find oil (Fig. 9). One was a rod attached by string to a receptacle filled with a secret potion purported to magically spin if held over oil-containing earth. Oilman Alexander Balfour Patterson recalled Dr. P. S. Griffith’s wiggle-stick:
He had little lugs that looked like the size of a silver pencil and it had a plate that would fit the palate, the roof of his mouth. And from each side of this plate that protruded from the mouth were coiled, highly coiled, springs of six or eight inches long, on the end of which had little silver looking plates that he could take between his forefinger and thumb of each hand…He would thread-screw one of these little lugs marked silver, or gold, or iron, or oil, or gas, or sulphur, and then he would walk. This would be pointed vertically, and sometimes he would start and tremble and you’d see this lug draw down toward the ground. There he’d make a mark… (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 17).
With this mark and some fancy geometry, Dr. Griffith indicated a drilling location. One experienced oilman who watched Griffith carefully thought his successes were more from surface observations than the wiggle-stick.
There were battery operated devices of many kinds which sounded horns, rang bells or moved a display needle when detecting the presence of vibrations, magnetic pulses or the like. There was a truck bearing a radioscope, a low tech, pseudo-scientific take on seismic equipment. There were photographic plates, sensitized to detect the presence of indicative minerals. (Boatright 1963, p. 35-45) There were people who claimed to be able to smell the oil and those who claimed to have x-ray eyes and could see it. All these methods claimed to have located producing wells, and some did. But the verifiability of previous successes was sometimes elusive and often success was obtained in oil regions where most any method had some success. One oilman reportedly tied a tin can to a dog’s tail, set the dog running and drilled where the tin can came off. Another drilled where a blindfolded man’s throw of a silver dollar fell. Both reported finds.
Where science had no explanation, luck was sought. Even Everette DeGolyer, instrumental in turning oil exploration into petroleum geophysics, said the search required both skill and luck and added, In case of doubt, weigh mine with luck. (Knowles 1978, p. 300). DeGolyer loved to relate what Geologist W.P. Cummins said when asked how he found the rich Panuco field of northeastern Mexico:
The Professor looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. Then he looked at me seriously…‘Been asked that question many times. Never made any answer—too technical!’ His eye gleamed. ‘Goin’ to tell you, though—you c’n understand.’ A long pause. With a triumphant snap of the end of his beard, he leaned forward and whispered, ‘Little bird told me.’ (Tinkle 1970, p. 188-89).
In a 1953 essay, Boatright described the lucky breakdown and the million dollar drink as two specific motifs in oil discovery stories and traced actual and legendary examples of each. Perhaps the most famous incident of the lucky breakdown—where drilling is assigned at one location but inadvertently, though successfully, done at another—is associated with Dad Joiner. But Boatright chronicled many examples, affirming Samuel W. Tait’s remark that it had been told about: …every oilfield I know, whether it be sandy desert, boggy swamp, muddy prairie, or rocky mountain, and it has probably happened in every one of them. (Speck 1973, p. 96). Boatright chronicled an equal frequency of the lucky drink, from which results inebriation and a gusher. In the Big Lake Field, the proceeds of which funded the University of Texas, the drilling supposedly would have stopped too soon had not the supervising executive been out for a drink long enough for the crew to bring the well in. (Speck 1973, p. 102-03).
In the Gib Morgan tales, there are many lucky breakdown events. Though the stories’ primary focus is on Gib’s heroic ability to get the well drilled, his biggest piece of luck contributes to the science of geology:
During the early days of the oil industry there was a lot of discussion about the nature of oil deposits. One school of learned men said they were reservoirs; another school of equally learned men held they were veins. All of which shows that nobody else knows as much about oil as the practical man. For Gib Morgan demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the learned men were wrong. Oil deposits are running streams…It began back in the seventies when he was working in the Bradford field…his watch slipped out of his pocket and fell into the well…Fourteen years later he was drilling in West Virginia. One time when he emptied the sand bucket, he saw something shining in the slush pit. He fished it out and there was the watch…But what was more remarkable it was still running…The watch hadn’t lost a second in all those fourteen years in the bowels of the earth…It was a stem winder and as the current of oil had carried it along, the stem had scraped on the bottom and the sides of the passage and this had kept it wound… (GM, #45).
For Gib, there could be no million dollar drink because, like John D. Rockefeller (Fig. 10), the other great oilman of the late nineteenth century, the Gib of the tales is a non-drinker: When he and John D. agree to put up the biggest rig ever drilled, they …shook hands on it, but they didn’t drink, both being temperance men. (GM, #9) This variation on the common motif probably reflects the fact that in the life of the tall tales’ creator there were probably no million dollar drinks. Of the real Morgan, O.G. Lawson told Boatright:
…[W]hen he come back from the war he got started working in the oil fields in Pennsylvania, but drink soon got the better of him, and he became an oil-country tramp. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 144-45).
The Tales Move West
The boomtowns in Texas, Oklahoma, California and around the world after the turn of the century gave a new flavor to oil industry legend and lore. Each of the great booms had its own circumstances, its own personalities, its own distinctive
impact, Ruth Sheldon Knowles wrote. (Knowles 1978, p. 120). But the makeshift towns where they boomed had many similarities. They were tough, rugged places, famous for a plenitude of hard drink, bad water, muddy oily streets, few toilets and fewer rentable places to sleep. And the stories moved from town to town with the men and the booms.
In the absence of law and order, oilmen made their own justice and told stories about it. W. H. (Bill) Bryant told a tale of boomtown justice when remembering a saloon that incurred the wrath of the oilfield workers:
If they could get your money, they’d get you drunk…So then we got tired of that. There was a railroad running beside of it where they hauled logs. And one night we got a bailing line and put it around it and put a clamp on it, and when the log train come by, we hooked it on to the log train and scattered that slab saloon about four hundred yards right down the railroad track. That’s the way we tore that one up, because it was trimming the roughnecks. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 71).
Batson, Texas, undertaker Plummer M. Barfield remembered a grimmer instance of boomtown justice:
It was dark and had been raining…There was a roughneck killed in the field. I forgot now how…I went in the field and loaded the body…halfway back, why I met a bunch of men with lanterns…Says, ‘Well, throw him out. We got some more work for you to do.’ Well…there was a dead woman and a baby. I loaded them up and went on and unloaded them…
About the time I got that done, why, a couple of roughnecks come in and…says, ‘you can go back down there in the bushes about one hundred yards from where you were and…you’ll find two more.’
…And in the meantime I’d learned why there were two more down there. This lady’s baby had taken sick, and she’d got up to give it a dose of medicine or tend to it, and some rattlebrain drunks shot at the light, see, through the tent. Killed her and the child both. And these roughnecks and rig runners around there, they caught those two guys and hung them to a sweet gum tree. And them was the two men I went back and got… (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 75).
II. CHARACTER TYPES
According to Boatright, oil industry types emerged and with them came tales that grew ever taller.
1. The Geologist: Probably one of the earliest frequent confrontations between unschooled citizens and academicians was when geologists went out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to inspect rural landowners’ properties. Although nothing, as Mark Twain famously observed, hurries geology, folks in boomtowns were in a hurry to hit the oil jackpot. The geologists were not liked because science is not easy and geology, especially the creekology of the boomtown days, was not faultless. Maybe Boatright was correct that rock hound might be a somewhat respectful epithet if it came from rural folk who knew hounds were smart hunters. But the legends of the big discoveries often portrayed the geologist as the heavy, the egg-headed guy who said the dreamer was wasting his time drilling until, eventually, the gusher came in. Despite research suggesting there were geologists offering positive reports to dreamers like Captain Lucas and Dad Joiner, the one-liner that emerged as oil-industry lore was John Galey’s: …the only infallible geologist is Dr. Drill (Boatright 1963, p. 83-90).
One of Gib Morgan’s greatest feats comes because of a geologist’s foolishness. The head geologist for Standard Oil of New Jersey …had located a well just by putting a cross on the map… and …the rockhound had put the cross right smack dab on top of Pike’s Peak. Though his crew tells Gib if he moves the well to a more convenient location, the…brass hats back in New Jersey wouldn’t know the difference anyway…Gib said no. Against the fabled enormity of the Rocky Mountains in general and Pike’s Peak in particular, Gib performs legendary feats. He gets a derrick up on the peak, hooks up an engine and boiler twenty-three miles below on the nearest piece of level ground, and rides a mule on the almost vertical territory between, overseeing the operation. The punch line: While riding the mule straight down, Gib feels something wet and warm on the back of his neck that …didn’t smell like Hoyt’s Cologne. So he sells the mule, throws his saddle on the belt between the engine and the derrick and …rode it up or down. (GM, #7).
Gib builds his biggest rig ever because the rock hounds say there is oil in a certain Texas sand and leave it to him to get it out. Gib’s derrick covers an acre and is …hinged in two places so that he could fold it back to let the moon get by. The rest of the story is a working out of drillers’ details in legendary proportions, with twenty thousand barrel oil tanks for the first casing, huge bits and bunkhouses up on the derricks two weeks off the ground for toolies climbing to service the crown pulley. As the oil sands collapse inward, Gib finally …brought in the well with a needle and thread.
2. The Oil Promoter: In a 1961 essay, Boatright described the oil tale promoter as folklore’s trickster archetype, …the one who prevails, or sometimes fails to prevail, by his wits. (Speck 1973, p. 145). The promoter was the Brer Rabbit of the oil business, though not always so successful:
There were and are legitimate and ethical means of promotion…let us say a promoter secures a lease…He estimates that he can sink a well to the producing sand for $50,000. He sells seventy-five one-percent interests in the well for $1,000 each. He has $25,000 above the expected cost of the well, and if he finds oil, one-fourth of the seven-eighths remaining after the landowner’s royalty has been deducted is his. He hasn’t deceived anybody.
He becomes a trickster…[however]…if he sells interests totaling more than 100 percent…two men operating under this plan had the misfortune to strike oil…they plugged up their wells and left in a hurry. (Speck 1973, p. 147).
Elaborating on techniques of those who had salted gold mines before them, oil field tricksters invented ways of enhancing the value of their leases. Maybe the smell of gas or sprinkled or tracked oil would be enough to make a sale. They might bury oil and then claim to discover it, or arrange a nearly dry well’s pumps so that oil flowed out and then surreptitiously back into it, a continuous fountain to entice investors. Or buried pipes might bring oil into the well from a nearby tank. As modernity emerged with the oil industry, the trickster appeared in newspaper and radio advertising. In their ads, promoters promised to go to burning Hades or a cellblock in Leavenworth if their promotions turned out to be misrepresentations. There is no documentation regarding Hades but Leavenworth apparently did receive at least one promoter.
Statistics from the first half of the twentieth century reflect the success of the trickster (see Boatright 1963, p. 103-04, for sources):
-Within eight months of the Spindletop strike, Texas oil company capitalization was at $231,000,000 although actual investment at Beaumont was only $11,000,000;
-Of 1050 oil stock companies formed in Oklahoma in 1918-19, only seven paid dividends; one dollar was paid for every $550 invested;
-In Kansas, in 1916-17, 12 of 1,500 oil companies showed profits; there was $555 of capitalization for every barrel of oil;
-Aggregate defunct oil company capital in 1924 was $500,000,000;
-Through 1947, total accumulated oil investment of $102,000,000,000 produced $61,000,000,000 return;
-One promoter in 1918 fleeced 25,000 people for $2,500,000;
-In the five years preceding 1923, $100,000,000 was lost to fraudulent oil promoters in Texas;
-In 1924, there were 63 cases pending against Texas oil companies, representing $140,000,000.
Even Gib Morgan falls afoul of oil industry arithmetic. When Gib decides to go into the oil business for himself in West Virginia, he takes leases, sells interests to raise capital and sets up drilling projects. He runs into trouble:
…the hole caved and had to be cased. Then it wasn’t long until it had to be cased again. He had to sell more interests to buy casing. Then he struck a hard slanting formation and got a crooked hole. It took two weeks work with a side reamer to straighten it up. He had to sell more interests to meet his payroll. He lost his tools and had expensive fishing jobs and had to sell still more interests.
Finally, Gib realizes that despite the best of intentions he has sold 150 percent of his investment:
Gib thought it over and decided he’d better leave the country for a while. He left between sundown and sunup. He went to the South Sea Islands, to Russia, to South America and to many other places where he had many remarkable adventures… (GM, #6).
3. The Shooter: Perhaps the boldest of the types Boatright described was the shooter. This was a man who put nitroglycerin into promising but non-producing wells to create an explosion intended to activate the oil. It was hazardous duty. Accidents occurred. Shooters were not merely injured or killed but were blown to bits. From the utter mayhem came real life accounts almost as astonishing as tall tales.
1871: Parts of the face, with mustache and four teeth attached, was the largest portion of the driver recovered from the debris. The horse was disemboweled, and to numerous trees bits of flesh and clothing were sticking. From the ghastly spectacle the beholders turned away. (Boatright 1963, p. 107).
1919: Two men were blown to pieces, a woman slightly hurt, a bridge demolished, and a garage badly damaged when a cargo of nitroglycerin being transported in an automobile blew up…One of the persons killed was the driver and the other was a passenger he had picked up…Both men were blown to atoms. Human fragments were picked up along the road and in the fields for a distance of several hundred yards…Pieces of the car were scattered to the four winds…In the edge of the ditch skirting the roadway probably 600 ft. from where the mishap occurred, searchers found the exterior skin of a man’s face. It looked as if it had been removed with a knife and resembled a mask made of human flesh. (Boatright 1963, p. 107).
At the well, the nitroglycerin charges, in containers, were lowered into the hole to be exploded. One of the worst dangers of the job was that occasionally the charges were unexpectedly pushed back up out of the hole by venting gases. The shooter then had to choose either to run or to gently catch the nitro container:
Tom Mendenhall came out to shoot it…and we lowered a six foot bucket with liquid nitroglycerin and…the gas caught it and began to push it back up…I never was a speed demon but I figured I’d try to make a new track record. And Tom was standing right by the well. And he could hear the glycerin bucket scraping off the side of the casing as it came up and he said, ‘Don’t run off, Walter. I’ll take care of it. And so foolish me, I stood there…He just spread his legs on each side of the casing and waited until the gas pushed this bucket of liquid nitroglycerin right up. And when it got up about waist high, he just reached out and hugged it like he was coming home to mama, and picked it up the rest of the way and took it over to the corner of the derrick…( Boatright 1963, p. 109).
When a blockage seemed to require a series of nitro blasts, multiple shells were used. One oilman liked to tell a tale of catching five shells:
…I was just letting the fifth one down when I felt the line slacken…the fellows started to run…The gas was sending it up like it was a feather floating over a hot radiator, and the odor was almost enough to knock a man down.
“I couldn’t run. There was only one thing I could do. When that shell stuck her nose above the casin’, I grabbed her. She was all covered with mud an’ oil, naturally, an’ it was like tryin’ to catch a slippery fish.
“I set her down as polite an’ gentle as I could, and started to wipe the sweat off my face when along came another one. I grabbed that one, too. I just had time to lay her back down, when the remaining three shot up, so close together that I was afraid they’d bump one another. By the time I laid the last one down, my helpers were all a hundred yards away, an’ they’d done the distance in a little over ten seconds. (Boatright 1963, p. 114-15).
From the amazing but true tales told by longtime oilfield fireman and shooter Ward A. Tex Thornton (Fig. 11), Edna Ferber (Fig. 12) constructed a spectacular if improbable scene in her famous novel about Oklahoma, Cimmaron, in which her tragic hero catches a charge like a football pass, saving everything and everyone around the well. (Ferber 1929, p. 387). That is a perfect example of how life gives way to fiction and, eventually, legend. Even more improbable and yet due its own status in oil industry lore is how Thornton, the king of the oil-well firefighters, died. After using special asbestos suits and nitroglycerin explosions to put out massive oil fires for three decades, this daring man was beaten and shot by hitchhikers for whom he had thoughtfully stopped on a Texas highway.
4. The Driller: The driller was the quarterback of the oilfield. Nothing else mattered if the driller and his crew didn’t get oil out of the well (Fig. 13). In oilfield lore, therefore, the driller was portrayed as the classic American hero type, the cowboy of the oilfields. Legend has it he was a commanding presence, a leader. He did not allow his decisions to be questioned. He faced dangers without fear. He always wore the finest in clothing and boots. He was idiosyncratic and independent. He was taciturn. He was the best fighter and the hardest drinker on the crew, the roughest of the roughnecks, the rowdiest of the roustabouts and the wisest of the wise.
For wisdom, there was driller Dad Titus, of the Titusville Tituses, who—when asked why he always ate something from his lunch pail at the start of his shift—said:
I’m a good deal older than you are, and I’ve been around drilling rigs longer than you have. You’d be surprised how many things can happen to your lunch. The rig can burn down and you won’t have anything to eat. The ants can get into it. It can fall off the nail and a stray dog or hog can get it. There’s so many different things that can happen to it that when I get out to the rig, I look through my pail and see what’s in it that I know I would like to have if I could save it until breakfast time next morning. But I just can’t afford to take the risk so I eat it right then.( Boatright 1963, p. 122).
For taciturnity, there was Hard-boiled Jim, who answered, Not putting out a damn thing, in response to any stranger seeking information about any well he was drilling. In response to a stranger’s remark that it looked like rain was coming, Hard-boiled Jim replied, Yes, but I’m not putting out a damn thing. Driller Cotton Young answered a remark about a coming storm with, You talk too much. (Boatright 1963, p. 125).
A note made by an Oklahoma driller told the whole story on drinking and fighting:
11:00A.M. Get up
11:00-11:30 Sober up
Noon to midnight Work like hell
Midnight-3 A.M. Get drunk
3:00-3:30 Beat hell out of them that’s got it coming
3:30 Go to bed
(Knowles 1978, p. 114).
Big Hole Bill (or Jack, the story has variants) would only drill down until the hole got small and required precision. He then drew his pay and went on a drunk, leaving the detail work to someone else. When all his drinking money had been guzzled, driller Grant Young frequently sent his crew to other oilmen to report him dead and collect donations for a funeral. A fellow once told a pair from Young’s crew, The first time Grant died, I gave you twenty dollars. This time I’ll only give you ten.
But there never was a driller like the Gib Morgan of the tall tales. Drilling in West Virginia and about five hundred feet down, …he broke a pin and lost his bit. The only thing to do was to rig up a string of fishing tools and go to work. He put a pair of long stroke jars below the drill stem and below the jars a horn socket… As he is about to fish in the well, a hoe handle on which a farmer leans beside a nearby cliff snaps. The farmer falls. Thinking fast and heroically, Gib uses the fishing string to catch the farmer before he hits the ground below the cliff.
Drilling in South America, Gib demonstrates Yankee self-reliance in the jungles. To deal with malarial mosquitoes, he goes after medicine wells. He …geologized around a while and made a location on an anticline… He hits a vein of quinine, moves his rig, drills again and brings up whiskey. Then, medicinally prepared by the quinine and whiskey combination to deal with the next mosquito attack, he sets his crew to what they are there to do, drill for oil.
Called to the well while resting after taking his quinine and medicinal whiskey, he and the crew see tools coming up out of the well and then going back in and then …the rope socket was coming out of the well, then the sinker came, and then the jars. After the jars, the drill stem and then the bit. Gib just stood there watching. The tools would go up into the derrick and when they came down, he would guide them back into the hole… Out they come again. Finally, he realizes …he had struck a vein of rubber.
The tools go higher and higher over the hole and take longer and longer to come out. When Gib sees the tools come out with a piece of shale attached, he knows the rubber has been penetrated and has his crew grab the tools and restart the drill …as though nothing had happened. It wasn’t many days until they brought in a good well.
Drilling on another well, Gib hits a thicker vein of rubber and the tools never penetrate it. There is a rumor that the tools are still going up and down. Because of this, Gib invents:
…his famous, double-action, compensating jars…A steel spring compensates for the elasticity of the rubber and enables the driller to go right on through…just as he would a stratum of shale or limestone or any other formation.
5. The Landowner: Two themes in oil industry lore typify the landowner. One is the landowner’s distrust of the promoter. The other is the landowners’ remarkable uses of unexpected newfound wealth. With the record of the trickster-promoter, the landowner’s distrust should not be surprising but the legitimate oilman tended to be impatient. More than one story tells of a driller’s offer to lower a landowner into a well with a lantern to prove it had yet to produce.
As to the odd habits of the newly wealthy, television’s Beverly Hillbillies were perhaps the standard by which all Coal-Oil Johnnies might forever be judged. The original Coal Oil Johnny was John Washington Steele. Steele’s aunt, Sarah McClintock, had purchased an oil burning stove with newly acquired oil wealth and then died in a fire started while cooking on the stove in March 1864. She left to her nephew John:
…about $200,000 in gold and currency locked up at home in an iron safe and about $100,000 on deposit in the bank, and a farm upon which oil royalties were yielding between two and three thousand dollars a day…In less than a year Steele had parted with his inheritance and was selling tickets for a traveling minstrel show for his board and keep. He had signed various documents while under the influence of brandy. He had played angel to the minstrel show that afterward maintained him. He had rented a hotel and entertained all comers. He had given away horses and carriages. He had walked down the city streets with ten-dollar bills stuck in the buttonholes of his coat, enjoying having them snatched by any passerby who could grab one. These are only some of the means by which he got rid of his fortune…Steele was an exceptional man, but his pattern of behavior has been repeated with sufficient frequency to establish his nickname…A Coal-Oil Johnny is anyone who squanders an oil fortune, large or small. (Boatright 1963, p. 144-45).
Lore recounting odd reactions to newfound oil wealth spread far and wide. There was a very famous Mrs. McClesky of Ranger, Texas, who was supposed to have indulged only in the purchase of a new ax with which to go on chopping kindling for her old wood-burning stove. Variations on the new ax story were found by folklorists in the Gib Morgan regions of Pennsylvania as well as in Desdemona, Beaumont and Vann in Texas (Boatright, 1963, p. 142). Then, there was the East Texas farmer who only bought a new Stetson and five dollars worth of bananas; and the coon hunter who only bought his thirteen hounds fresh red meat and a car to drive them in; the farmer’s widow and her sister who only bought new linoleum for the kitchen; and the newly rich old blind man who only bought cars for his nephews to drop him off and pick him up at the corner where he once begged but now could sit around and tell stories.
On the whole, oil wealth has actually been, for responsible people, just the delight our fantasies wish it to be:
A retired oilman, after thirty-five years’ activity in all parts of the United States, declares that the men who have shown the best judgment in the handling of their oil money are the bankers and the landowners. The banker invests conservatively in stocks and bonds. The farmer or ranchman, he says, pays his debts, builds a house, and buys more land. (Boatright 1963, p. 149).
A story told about Tom Wheeler turned up in variations quite often. Wheeler was an achingly poor farmer until his Oklahoma land brought him great oil wealth. Though he moved his family from that barren, oil-rich land, he saw all his children through Agricultural College and gave them farms as graduation gifts. (Knowles 1978, p. 124-25).
6. The Oil-Field Doves: There were few examples of women doing actual production work:
If it was, reported oilman H.C. Sloop, it was only an isolated case of a woman coming on the job to help her husband when he wanted to go to rest…I remember one or two women who ran boilers. But their husbands were working, running these boilers, and the women folks would come down and bring him lunch or bring him a change of clothing or something of that kind. And they had been there often enough for him to tell them how to handle the boiler and how to look after it. And he could go home and lie down…And outside of that I don’t know of anything. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 113).
You’d have what you called these oil-field doves—the gals that hung around the oil fields, recalled oilman Landon Haynes Cullum, and there was plenty of them around…there were really some woolies, and they had all kinds of names for them. Some of them wouldn’t be very good to repeat. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 162).
One female name that was repeated so often it became a slang expression was Ruby Darby. She began in a Dallas chorus line, honed her act in World War I army camps and made her mark as one of the first to sing the blues in the southwest boomtowns. Known in the 1920s as the toast of the oil-field workers, this brazen sensuous showgirl toured the oil camps in a big red flashy chauffeur-driven automobile, coming in wearing only a fur coat and a smile to guarantee a packed house for the night’s performance. Her trademark song was W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues but more popular than her sultry voice was her exotic dancing. They said she would strip at the drop of a driller’s hat; had ridden a hoss completely nekkid down the mud- and oil-splashed streets of Keifer, and had danced bare-skinned on a tool shack roof as men tossed silver dollars at her feet. She packed a pistol, wore silk stockings and would try anything once… and an acquaintance called her a natural adventurer. There was a popular couplet warning, If you’ve got a good man keep him home tonight/for Ruby Darby’s in town and she’s your daddy’s delight. (Wallis 1988, p. 187).
She was so highly loved in some of the Oklahoma oilfields that when a gusher came in the men would call it a Ruby Darby. Eventually, to call something a Darb was to say it could get no higher praise. In Ernest Hemingway’s (Fig. 14) The Sun Also Rises, the main character suggests his companion has some excellent acquaintances: You’ve got some fine ones yourself. The listener agrees that his acquaintances are good ones. Oh, yes. I’ve got some darbs. (Hemingway 1926, p. 107).
As Cullum pointed out, not all the women in the camps were so highly thought of, though many were respected for unique qualities:
There were women of every type, all types, from the smallest to the largest, and from the tenderest to the toughest, and we had lots of fighting among the women; of course, I don’t remember any women getting killed, recalled W.H. (Bill) Bryant. They generally got beat up, somebody would separate them. I believe Nella Dale and Grace Ashley put on the best bout I ever seen. I think they fought an hour and fifteen minutes before they were separated. And when they quit fighting they didn’t have on enough clothes to wipe out a twenty-two.
This fight taken place here in Sour Lake, and that woman was the best fighter I ever saw. I never did know what her real name was. We called her ‘Mooch.’ And she was from Cripple Creek, Colorado, and she was kind of every man’s pet hero because she could always come out under her own power when she was drinking, and she was a good fist fighter. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 70).
…And I want to tell you something, Bryant was elsewhere quoted, the best hearts I have seen in people is in the underworld. I seen prostitutes after they commit suicide and maybe the girl didn’t have anything much. I’ve seen the other women take off their diamond rings and sell them…and help bury this particular woman…some of the women were taking care of their mother back home, and some of them was probably taking care of a baby where a sorry husband had walked out on them, and when you get right down she had a clean heart…some of them was tough as a boot and don’t you think they wasn’t. Some of them would pick your pocket, and they were just as low as they ever got, and others had lots of pride left. Now I know one woman—she was a fine-looking woman and she killed her husband and later married a field man. That woman straightened out and I believe she lived a clean life from then on. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 118).
Oilman Frank Hamilton remembered more about Mooch:
Mooch was a gambler’s—supposed to be his wife. She’d sit up there with him at all times…And a low bunch was following so that you had to watch them. But this Mooch…was very pretty at the time that I first saw her in Sour Lake, Texas…The reason she got that name…was because if any roughneck or pipe liner would get sick, didn’t have any money, anything like that, why she’d go out and mooch all the oilmen…if a boy got sick or anything, why Mooch would start out. Wouldn’t be long until she’d have a quack doctor there, medicine, and plenty to eat.
Well, Mooch, she died in jail in Shreveport, Louisiana…She had a heart—a big heart—so they give her a respectful good burial… (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 118)
Corsicana boomtown veteran Carl F. Mirus thought Bob from Fort Worth got it right when he told an attorney from Corsicana who confirmed to Bob that the respectable Fort Worth woman he had married had indeed been a prostitute in Corsicana:
‘Well,’ he says, ‘you know people talk about me marrying a whore.’ Says, ‘I think it’s something to be proud of.’ He said, ‘Any man can go out with a girl that’s never been married and never had a sweetheart and persuade her to marry him, but,’ he says, ‘you take a man that takes a girl that has had ten thousand sweethearts and gets her to pick him out of all the rest and marry him,’ says, ‘now that’s really doing something.’ (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 119).
In any pantheon of oil industry angels, a special place must go to Daisy Bradford and the many women who wittingly or otherwise funded Dad Joiner’s drilling venture. Joiner, it is said, obtained investments by reading the newspaper obituaries and courting widows of means. Using their money, Joiner drilled, on Ms. Bradford’s farm in 1931, the first well in what became known as the East Texas Black Giant. Playing the other side of the fence were the psychics and fortune tellers always in and around the boomtown camps, such as Zara of Beaumont, Madame Virginia of Abilene and Annie Jackson of Mexia. These were women who, like Dad Joiner, used what they had of insight and persuasiveness to induce oilmen to share their wealth.
Contributing to legend and lore in ways that require separate research essays were two other women. Ida Tarbell (Fig. 15) was a journalist and novelist who grew up in the mid- and late nineteenth century Pennsylvania oil regions, the daughter of an unsuccessful wildcatter. Ms. Tarbell was among the progressive journalists at McClure’s Magazine dubbed muckrakers by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Perhaps motivated by her father’s failure or perhaps by what she saw around her, Ms. Tarbell wrote a series of articles for McClure’s in 1902-03 which eventually became The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in book form in 1904. It was instrumental in rallying public and political sentiment for the legal reorganization of Standard Oil in 1911. Arguably, Daniel Yergin wrote, it was the single most influential book on business ever published in the United States. (Yergin 1991/92, p. 105).
Lydia Bragatouni (a.k.a. Lydia Pavlova) was another kind of woman entirely. A White Russian princess living in post-World War I Paris and working with other anti-Leninists to take back control of her country, she became a mistress of both Royal Dutch/Shell’s Henri Deterding and Turkish Petroleum’s Calouste Gulbenkian. She was perhaps the only neutral ground as these men wrestled for control of Mesopotamian oil in the 1920s. Eventually, as her political hopes faded, she rejected Gulbenkian and became Mrs. Deterding. Though the men reached a Red Line Agreement in Mesopotamia, there remained ever after a personal enmity between them over Lydia Pavlova. As Mrs. Deterding, she inspired a strong anti-Communist stance at Royal Dutch/Shell. (Yergin 1991/92, pp. 202 & 242).
Women essentially do not appear in the Gib Morgan tales.
III GIB MORGAN
Paul Bunyan (Fig. 16), Pecos Bill (Fig. 17 and Davy Crockett (Fig. 18) are today thought of as Disney characters but they came out of regional oral traditions and lived for decades before Disney. They probably emerged into the national consciousness because academic chronicles in the 1920s bridged their passage into the popular media that emerged in that same period. Because they did transition
from folklore to Disney, they remain famous. As chronicled in Boatright’s work, Gib Morgan was to the oil industry what Crockett was to the frontier, what Bunyan was to logging, what John Henry was to railroad building, what Casey Jones was to railroading and what Pecos Bill was to cattlemen. Because post-World War I academics did not bring the Gib Morgan oral tradition into print in that era, it was not widely heralded and remains folklore almost forgotten to today’s popular culture.
Boatright, who died in 1970, described the tall tale as a kind of everyday art. He went to great lengths to precisely define tall tales with academic rigor. Gilbert Morgan was merely a practitioner of tale telling. As Boatright wrote in the The Art of Tall Lying …[I]n any group there will be those who know a good story when they hear one, and are not too strictly bound by facts to alter them if it makes the story better… (Speck 1973, p. 105). In the same essay, Boatright used the example of a character called Pie Biter to show how the Gib Morgan tall tales grew out of a familiar frontier style of storytelling. Pie Biter really was a Texas ranch cook named Jim Baker who won a bet by stacking five pies and eating them. Eventually, tales made Pie-Biter a cook for the Texas Rangers who could not only hunt buffalo from his chuck wagon, but also, in the absence of kindling, chase down prairie wildfires to cook the buffalo meat (Speck 1973, p. 78).
The Real Gib Morgan
The real Gilbert Morgan was born July 14, 1842, in Callensburg, Clarion County, in western Pennsylvania. With his family, Gilbert—like his fictional hero nicknamed Gib or Gid—moved to Emlenton in 1848. It was a pre-Civil War village life, mostly handmade and homegrown. Entertainment was primarily storytelling and prank-playing. Think Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn except that, forty miles away in Titusville in 1859 when Gilbert was seventeen, Colonel Drake brought in the first commercial oil well in the United States. Before Gilbert Morgan could derive personal benefit from the boom in the region, the Civil War began. From 1861 to 1864, he served in Company C of the Tenth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry. They fought and suffered casualties at, among other places, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.
After the war, Gilbert worked in the oil industry of northwestern Pennsylvania. He probably started as a tool dresser’s apprentice, became a tool dresser and, eventually, a driller. He married Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Richey in Emlenton in 1868 and they had three sons, Ed (born approximately 1869), Charles (born 1870), and Warren (born 1872). When Mollie died in 1872, Gilbert left his boys with the Richey family and went to the oilfields. He roamed the Ohio-Illinois-Pennsylvania-West Virginia region between 1872 and 1892, lived with his son Warren in Eau Claire, Pennsylvania in 1893-94, and finally resided in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, with intermittent wanderings, until his death in 1909.
Probably garrulous and sociable from his youth, Gilbert Morgan took up drinking and storytelling with a vengeance during his itinerant years after Mollie’s death. Boatright’s authoritative speculation was that during time spent on drilling sites, in oil worker haunts and in public houses, Gilbert’s pranks and jokes evolved into the persona of Gib and a repertoire of tales growing ever taller. Acquaintance W.M. Kennedy of Franklin, Pennsylvania, summed Gilbert up in a letter to Boatright:
They used to say that he was ‘the biggest liar in the oil country.’ I don’t think this is the proper title for him. I would say that ‘the best entertainer in the oil country’ would have been a much better title. (GM, #36).
Even in his last decade, he was able to obtain room, board and drinks at inns where he stayed with his entertaining, imaginative tall tales.
The Tales of Gib
Gilbert Morgan’s hero, Gib, was a practical man. His concerns were the pedestrian and the earthy. His doctoring was for tapeworms and bee stings. He took notice of hog markings and the lay of farmland. He reacted to fog and mosquitoes. This is not the stuff of Odysseus and Achilles, or even Paul Bunyan. Everything in the Gib stories comes from the everyday life of the working oil man in the late nineteenth century: corn crops and dairy cattle, horses and hunting rifles, boots and boarding house food. Many of the stories turned around Gib solving a technical problem for himself or his drillers, sometimes fancifully but almost always using the nuts and bolts of the driller’s trade. In Rome, he built a chariot with bull wheels. When he lost something in a well, he invented a new way of getting it out with standard fishing tools. In the jungle and in need of cable and pipe, he learned how to make use of a boa constrictor as a bullshaft cable and a fishing tool and used its shed skin for pipe.
Maybe Gib’s was the kind of attitude that sees a man through four years as a foot soldier in the Civil War. He did not rail against the things he found along the way but laughed at the way they were and invented fantastic and funny ways they might otherwise be. The stories were very much the work of a man who had seen too much of war. Loud noises were described as being like the sound of musketry in battle. The only fight in the tales was a fantastic one that ended abruptly when the combatants realized they would rather eat, drink and be friendly. Maybe Gilbert Morgan’s war experiences, coupled with the death of his wife not many years later, explain his alcoholism and why he did not leave a significant written record of his work.
In the 1940s, Boatright collected, organized and edited the brief tales from oral recollections. He grouped them in something like a chronological order. Each subsequent story added a unique facet to the legend. The collected tales start with a series about Gib as a slightly bemused and condescending Pennsylvanian drilling in West Virginia. Next comes a long series of stories recounting Gib’s adventures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century oil regions of the world, invented despite the fact that the real Gilbert Morgan probably never left the northeastern fields. In his travels, Gib meets:
…the Noble, Grand, Worshipful, Master, Chanceller, Commander, Exalted Ruler and Jibbonancy of the [Fiji] Islands…who spoke Oxford…and entertained him so royally that he forgot all about the well…(GM, #10).
In the South Pacific, Gib gets a fitting companion, Big Toolie.
…[T]wenty-eight inches between the eyes and so tall that he could grease the crown pulleys without taking a foot off the ground…Big Toolie was a good-natured, playful giant… (GM, #12).
Like the cowboy hero who is the only one who can ride his faithful stallion or the baseball hero who is the only one who can swing the big bat, Gib masters Big Toolie and wins his loyalty. When Big Toolie gets a Dear John letter from his woman in the States, Gib tries to help him by sending him back to the States through the pipeline they have laid between the South Pacific and the East Coast:
So Gib…put him in the pipe line and started the pump…[Big Toolie] went through as slick as grease until he got to the Y at St. Louis. There his right foot started to New York and left foot to Chicago…He never lived to know that his woman married the other man. (GM, #19)
In a series of stories set in the jungles of South America, Gib tames Strickie, a giant boa constrictor, to oilfield work. They work together until the snake decides to retire …in the Bronx, where he would have plenty of company. (GM, #27). In India, Gib invents rubber boots. Sent there to drill, Gib does not take extra boots because he expects it to be a civilized country but finds the natives all wearing sandals or barefoot. As their boots wear out, his men, ...were getting madder and madder and were threatening to quit and go back to [the Lord’s] country where a man could buy a pair of Wisconsin boots if he had the money. From nearby rubber country, Gib got some pure para gum and molds rubber to his men's feet. The men were pleased and went about their work with a new will…Then just as everybody was feeling happy a most unfortunate accident occurred. A toolie falls from the crown pulley at the top of the derrick:
He hit the ground rubber boots first and bounced up twice as high as the derrick. When he hit the ground the second time, he bounced out of sight and didn’t come down for two hours. When he went up the third time, he didn’t come down for two days. Gib got to figuring, and he figured it out that if he went up again, he wouldn’t come down in less than twenty-four days, and Gib knew that no man could live for twenty-four days without food or drink. So as much as he hated to do it, Gib had to shoot him to keep him from starving to death. (GM, #30).
Back in Texas, the same thing happens to another of Gib’s tool dressers. But this time, Gib uses a Texas technique to save the man. He lassoes him on his first bounce and uses a drilling engine and wheel to reel the man in. (GM, #31).
A few stories return Gib to the oilfields of the northeast, where he displays his talents at handling drilling equipment. Next come a more fictionalized series of stories. Gib drills in England and hammers shingles to fog, he logs, he farms humongous produce, he dairy farms (and blasts dry milk cows with nitroglycerin to produce copious amounts of milk), and he runs his boarding house and his hotel. There are then three stories about Torpedo, Gib’s magnificent horse: He was no ordinary horse. He weighed twenty tons and was twenty-two yards long if he was one. On Torpedo, Gib rides out from Oil City, Pennsylvania, at nine a.m., inspects wells in progress in Louisiana, oversees the drilling and capping of a Kansas well, and got back to Oil City for a late supper. (GM, #42). In Rome to drill, in the second Torpedo tale, Gib and Torpedo win a chariot race.
In the last of the collected tales, Gib makes his discovery about petroleum geology in Pennsylvania, cures a monstrous tapeworm, invents a marvelous twenty-four-barrel shotgun for pigeon hunting, raises his hunting dogs and lands a huge catfish in Louisiana. Drilling in Russia and enduring a Russian winter, Gib is snowed in for a week. He decides he must go for supplies. He hitches a sleigh to a pair of ponies, covers himself in furs and sets out. Half way, he spots two huge ferocious Russian bears chasing him. Despite whipping his ponies, the bears draw to within three feet. He begins whipping at the bears but they poise to leap. He ducks down under the skins and covers his head. Nothing seems to happen. He peeks out:
The bears were drawing the sleigh. They had leaped over him and eaten the horses right into the harness and the Russian yoke…Gib picked up the lines, drove them into town…and drove back to camp. By that time the bears were as gentle as ponies. He drove them all winter. (GM, #49).
Finally, Gib has the only fight found in the tales. Gib Morgan was a peaceful and law-abiding man whose motto was Live and Let Live. Drilling along the Ohio River with a crew of African-American workers [Boatright used the pejorative n-word which was undoubtedly used in the original version], Gib feels it necessary to discipline one rambunctious man. They fall into the river, fighting. The worker pulls a knife and, defending himself, Gib pulls his own. A crowd forms on the bank:
The news spread and more people came. The railroads ran excursion trains to the scene, and all the steamboats stopped and tied up. The farmers on both sides of the river charged for standing room and cleared over fifty thousand dollars. Tens of thousands of dollars were bet on the outcome of the fight.
The only evidence of the fight is pieces of bloody flesh coming to the river’s surface. The odds shift according to whether there is more Caucasian or African-American flesh emerging:
They fought and they fought until finally their knives got so dull they wouldn’t cut any more. They agreed to a truce so they could come up and grind their blades. When they came out they discovered they had been fighting for two weeks, and they were powerfully hungry. They went to a restaurant and each ordered a beefsteak four inches thick. When they had finished eating, they felt so good they called off the fight. (GM, #51)
Boatright and others have compared the best of the Gib tales to some of Mark Twain’s work. Like the tales of Twain and other of Gilbert Morgan’s more well-known contemporaries, there are instances of xenophobia, naïvete and cliché here. But at their best, they are imaginative and funny. They have the frankness and playfulness of the storytelling tradition out of which they grew and they remain an essential part of an invaluable record of a time and an industry.
BARTLETT, Kim, 1979, Gulf Star 45, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 224 p.
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Boatright’s Gib Morgan stories (from Boatright 1945):
1. Hogs in the hills
2. How Gib paid a board bill
3. How Gib saved a famer’s life
4. How Gib nearly got a bit
5. How Gib Got a bit
6. Gib as operator
7. How Gib drilled on Pike’s Peak
8. Gib on a Texas ranch
9. Gib’s biggest rig
10. The buttermilk sand
11. The champagne sand
12. Big Toolie
13. How Gib lost a fortune
14. How Gib lost favor with the exalted ruler
15. How Gib solved the fuel problem
16. The shrinking hole
17. One screw too many
18. How Gib laid a pipe line under the ocean
20. A night in the jungle
21. Medicine wells
22. How Gib discovered Strickie
23. How Strickie bailed out
24. How Gib recovered his tools
25. More cable
26. Strickie delivers again
27. Strickie’s last days
28. The self-drilling well
29. Perpetual motion
30. How Gib invented rubber boots
31. How Gib saved his tool dresser
32. Gib’s hardest fishing job
33. A simple solution
34. Gib’s narrowest escape
35.Gib as manufacturer
36. Gib as farmer
37. Cucumbers in India
38. Gib as dairyman
39. Gib’s boarding house
40. Gib’s hotel
41. Trouble with the crown pulley
42. Gib Morgan’s wonderful horse
43. Torpedo’s chariot race
44. Torpedo in danger
45. Gib Morgan’s contribution to geology
46. Gib as doctor
47. Gib’s guns
48. Gib’s dogs
49. Gib in Russia
50. Gib as fisherman
51 Gib Morgan's fight.
About the Author: Herman K. Trabish, D. C., owes his fascination with all things oil to the reading of Daniel Yergin’s The Prize and his discovery of Samuel T. Pees’ web site. He has recently completed a historical novel about the oil industry, OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, The Story of our Addiction. It is available at his website, www.oilintheirblood.com (and through on-line booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble). He is currently at work on the sequel, OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, The American Decades. He also edits NEW ENERGY NEWS (http://www.newenergynews.blogspot.com), a daily news blog.
Orignally published in the Petroleum History Institute's OIL-INDUSTRY HISTORY, Volume 7, Number 1, 2006.