Paydirt and the Man from Spotsylvania (Part 3): Oil

Although he was trained as a civil engineer, William Knox Gordon was also keenly interested in geology. By 1897 the company town of Thurber was already extracting coal (see Part 1) and shale for bricks (see Part 2) from “the winding, barren hills” of northern Erath County. Gordon was determined to coax one more secret from the earth: According to the Star-Telegram Gordon “found every indication of gas and oil in paying quantities” and told local farmers “that the time was near at hand that great fields of oil would be developed and poor men would become millionaires overnight.”

Fast-forward to the new century. By 1915 Gordon, as superintendent of Texas & Pacific Coal Company’s Thurber mines, knew that the coal mines of Thurber could not compete indefinitely with coal mines of the East, which had richer deposits. However, he remained convinced that oil and natural gas deposits could be found in the area.

In January 1915 Gordon, under the auspices of Texas & Pacific Coal Company, drilled an exploratory well between Thurber in Erath County and Ranger in Eastland County. At 1,000 feet he struck oil, raising the hopes of the local population, which was suffering economically because of drought and boll weevils. However, those hopes subsided after subsequent test wells were dry holes.

But Gordon believed that major deposits of oil lay deeper than 1,000 feet, deeper, in fact, than most trained geologists believed. Meanwhile, by early 1917 Gordon had spent $100,000 of his company’s money looking for oil. Bartee Haile writes in Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil that Edgar Marston, president of the company, telegrammed Gordon from New York: “Think we have made a mistake. Better quit.”

Gordon asked for just a little more time, just a little more money.

Marston consented.

Gordon began supervising the drilling of two exploratory wells: on the Nannie Walker farm and on the John H. McCleskey farm. Gordon was determined to drill to 3,500 feet. On October 17, 1917 on McCleskey’s farm a mile southwest of Ranger, Gordon’s well—drilled by veteran Warren Wagner—had reached a depth of 3,432 feet when the ground began to rumble. As workers dived off the trembling derrick, the well spewed first dirt and rock and then oil, shooting halfway up the eighty-foot derrick and coating Mrs. McCleskey’s white leghorns in black gold.


Gordon’s discovery well would have an estimated daily flow of 1,600 barrels of oil. But more important, the McCleskey well would be the first of hundreds of productive wells in the area. (Gordon would quickly go two for two: Less than twenty-four hours after the McCleskey well came in, the Walker well came in.)

In the Star-Telegram a boom had begun with barely a burp: This brief was buried on page 7.

The briefness of that brief notwithstanding, Gordon’s gusher changed everything. The discovery of the Ranger oilfield would have ramifications both locally and internationally.

Locally: Oil was not the only bonanza of the Ranger oilfield. Natural gas also was produced. In 1917 Texas & Pacific Coal Company switched from the paydirt it had been founded on, had based its very name on—coal—to natural gas as fuel for its brick plant.

Locally: In 1918 Gordon’s company changed its name to “Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company,” deleting the ampersand (the clip is in error) and adding its new pet product. The company controlled a vast part of the Ranger oilfield: 225,000 acres under lease in Stephens, Eastland, Palo Pinto, and Erath Counties, B. B. Paddock wrote in his 1922 History of Texas.

Locally: By 1919 most railroads were converting steam locomotives to burn oil instead of coal. The cost of oil was one-third the cost of coal. Texas & Pacific railroad, the Thurber coal mines’ first and biggest customer, would convert from coal to oil in 1920. As the demand for and price of coal decreased, Gordon’s company could not pay the wages demanded by the United Mine Workers union. The miners struck, and the company closed the mines in 1921.

King coal was dead.

After coal mining shut down in Thurber, many of its buildings were torn down for their lumber or moved to the Ranger oilfield.

By 1940 Thurber was a ghost town.

Today what is left of Thurber is a small but fascinating historical area just off Interstate 20.

Locally: Thurber’s loss was Ranger’s gain. According to the Texas State Historical Association, “within a year, Ranger’s population climbed from 1,000 to 30,000.”

Star-Telegram clip shows the Pennsylvania formation, which included the Ranger oilfield. Photo shows the skyline of the Ranger oilfield. (Photo from Erath County Genealogical Society.)

“Roaring Ranger” during the oil boom. Note the word “casino” painted on the tent in the right foreground. The boom occurred so suddenly that towns in the Ranger oilfield did not have sufficient housing for arriving workers.

“Fields of liquid gold” and streets of mud: Ranger before the streets were paved to accommodate the oil boom. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

Ranger’s Texas & Pacific railroad station in 1918. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

In May 1918 the Star-Telegram wrote: “This time one year ago Ranger was a quiet country town and was unknown to anybody except its residents and the train crew. Today it is a bustling city of more than 2,000 people.”

One year later the Ranger chamber of commerce invited the whole darned world to stop and stay a spell. The chamber crowed: “Ranger has grown from a city of 600 to 20,000 in less than two years, and it is still growing.”

W. K. Gordon’s prediction that someday “poor men would become millionaires overnight” was correct. One of those men was John H. McCleskey, whose eponymous well earned him $200 a day in royalties. He used that money to build a hotel in Ranger. McCleskey’s hotel was Ranger’s equivalent of Fort Worth’s Westbrook Hotel where oilmen gathered to socialize and make deals.

Gordon’s discovery also provided jobs for thousands, was a boon to towns like Ranger (and the nearest major city: Fort Worth). Even school districts got rich from wells on their property. By June 1919 the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, whose stock had skyrocketed from $30 to $1,250 a share, was drilling twenty-two wells in the area. Eight refineries were open or under construction. Oilmen ran big newspaper ads promising big profits. “Send for this valuable booklet.” “Fill and mail this coupon now.” “Sixty to ninety days should bring you splendid profits.”

The nearby town of Mingus, also known as “Thurber Junction” because the Texas & Pacific railroad spur ran from Mingus south to Thurber, got in on the boom, billing itself as “the center of attraction in the very center of the oil pool.”

Oilmen used all manner of inducements to lure investors. In San Saba County in the Hill Country, far from the west Texas oil fields, John H. Cooley offered a town lot and a share in an oil well for $300.

The oil boom gave birth to new towns. Not all of them survived. In Stephens County north of Ranger the town of Jimkurn, named for the president of the Frisco railroad, was laid out on the Wichita Falls and Southern railroad in 1920. A post office and train station were established. But as the oil boom faded, so did Jimkurn.Internationally: The timing of W. K. Gordon’s discovery was pert near impeccable. Just six months earlier, on April 6, 1917, the United States had declared war on Germany and desperately needed oil to fight the most mechanized war in history to that date.

Thirteen months after Gordon hit paydirt, World War I ended. According to a Texas Historical Commission marker at the site of the McCleskey well, the production of oil and gasoline during the Ranger boom allowed America and its allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.”

Texas Pacific Coal and Oil produced, refined, and sold oil and gasoline for automobiles and airplanes.

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of aviation, the company sold its products under the TP Aero (TP Aero = teepee arrow. Get it?) trademark, the teepee flanked by a pair of wings.

Then the company built five hundred gasoline stations to sell TP Aero products. The first station opened in Fort Worth in 1928 at the busy intersection of West 7th, University, and Camp Bowie.

As for the company itself, as the twentieth century progressed an unlikely corporate cocktail would be poured in 1963 when whiskey distiller Joseph E. Seagram and Sons bought Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company for $277 million. Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company would merge with another oil-producing company owned by Seagram: Frankfort Oil Company. The new firm would be named “Texas Pacific Oil Company.”

In 1980 Seagram would sell Texas Pacific Oil Company to Sun Oil Company for $2.3 billion.

As for W. K. Gordon, he left the company in 1923 and became an independent oil and gas producer. By 1930 he was living at 2624 Edgewood Terrace, just north of Lancaster Avenue, in today’s Meadowbrook area.

Upon moving to Fort Worth, according to Black Diamonds! Black Gold!: The Saga of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company by Don Woodard, Gordon reinterred in his back yard his two daughters Margie and Louise (see Part 1) from the family mausoleum in Thurber.

In 1934 Gordon was elected president of the board of directors of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

In 1949 William Knox Gordon died at his home on Edgewood Terrace. The man from Spotsylvania, who had been so instrumental in extracting three kinds of paydirt from the earth of “the winding, barren hills” of the Erath Mountains, was himself consigned to the earth: He was buried in Sparkman Hillcrest Cemetery in Dallas.

An interview with the widow McCleskey: $103 Million and “a New Set of Teeth”

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2 Responses to Paydirt and the Man from Spotsylvania (Part 3): Oil

  1. Fredda J Fox says:

    My grandaughter & grandson are direct descendants of this McCleskey family.Very interesting.Thank you for posting & sharing

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