$103 Million and “a New Set of Teeth”

Catharine Oglesby (see “Extra! Extra! Read All About It: ‘Girl Reporter’ Breaks Glass Ceilings”) wrote many human interest stories during her double-duty year of 1919 at the Star-Telegram.

But my favorite is her interview with the widow of John Hill McCleskey, whose name is forever associated with the Ranger oil boom that helped America win World War I.

McCleskey was one of the boom’s overnight millionaires.

But he did not live to enjoy his wealth very long. He died nine months after McCleskey well no. 1 came in.

J. H. McCleskey had been dead about seven months when Oglesby interviewed his widow, who was now living in a cottage in Ranger with her sister, Mrs. Fanny Coble. The cottage was located near the hotel that Mr. McCleskey had started building with his oil profits.

At the time of the interview McCleskey’s estate was valued at $7 million ($103 million today).

Catharine Oglesby, at all of twenty-four years of age, seemed to know when a reporter should guide an interview with questions and when she should just shut up and listen.

Oglesby described herself as a “small-town woman.” Perhaps the widow McCleskey sensed that and related to it.

Regardless, as Oglesby listened, Mrs. McCleskey unburdened herself. The oil strike had made the widow McCleskey rich. It had not made her happy:

“Since I married my old man I have known nothing but work,” Mrs. McCleskey told Oglesby. “I got up early every morning and worked out on the farm. We both worked and worked hard. He seemed to sort of hanker after work and wanted me to be doing so. Many times I milked a dozen cows standing above my knees in mud and slush. And Mr. McCleskey always helped me. Then I had the house to clean up and my washing to do. I made quite a little money taking in washing. I had my chickens to take care of. I had some beautiful white chickens.”

“I was not a bit excited the day the well came in. Those things have to happen or else they don’t happen. It is no use getting excited over them. It was a Saturday. One of my neighbors phoned me to come over and help her make some chowchow. I hitched up a team and went over.

“We were busy in the kitchen when the phone rang. My old man told me to come home at once. I never thought about the well. I thought my son had come home. They told me to get into my trotting harness and come home. The well was shooting all over the place.

“I had to get the team ready and started home. When I got there the oil was all over every place. The smell was awful. I went out in the yard and the first thing I saw was my chickens. They were so beautiful and white. The nasty stuff had just gotten all over them.

“The next day there were ninety-seven automobiles in front of our house, this is not counting teams and horses and people that hoofed it.

“That was an awful day. I spent the whole day cooking. I got dinner for twenty-eight people. Seemed like the whole countryside had come to see the well.

“I sure was tired when I finished feeding those folks. I was out of bread. If I ate anything I would have had to bake more bread, and I was just too tired, so I went without any dinner.”

After the well came in, Mr. McCleskey told his wife that their income had increased considerably and that he could afford to buy her something. What did she want?

She told him that the ax she used to chop kindling had a nick in the blade and that a new ax would be nice.

“We had a terrible time after that well came in,” the widow McCleskey told Oglesby. “Mr. McCleskey had to sell all our fine cattle. I tell you, I wasn’t half as glad the day the well came in as I was sad when we had to sell our cattle.

“But those old oil men had come in and tore down fences, and there was just nothing to do but sell. People came tearing down from all parts to buy leases off McCleskey.

“They had not gotten the gas confined, and we could not cook or have a fire in the house. We had to eat at the neighbors. Finally it got so bad we had to move to town.”

Oglesby asked Mrs. McCleskey if she was going to travel now that she had money and less responsibility.

“Well, yes. I am. I never had a chance to think about it much before. I want to travel a great deal. I want to go all over Texas and Oklahoma and see my folks. I have not seen some of my sisters for years.”

Oglesby asked: “What is your greatest wish?”

“Well, I want to go to Fort Worth and get a new set of teeth. Then I want to go back to the farm and get my garden planted.”

Yes, oil had made the widow McCleskey fabulously wealthy, but she also had lost her husband and her “fine cattle.” Her “beautiful” chickens had been covered with “the nasty stuff” that had made her fabulously wealthy. Now she was living in a rip-roaring boomtown when she yearned to be back at her farm preparing her spring garden.

Dream small.

As Oglesby left Mrs. McCleskey’s cottage, the widow gave her a gift to deliver to Mrs. McCleskey’s niece, who attended St. Ignatius Academy in Fort Worth.

The gift: a quarter.

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3 Responses to $103 Million and “a New Set of Teeth”

  1. Hi Mike: Loved the story about the McCleskey Oil Well. Mr. McCleskey was one of my McClesky relatives. My great-great-great grandmother was Louisa Rhea McCleskey who married Lorenzo Dow Wood. They both are buried at Rock Church.Several of our McCleskey relatives migrated from Georgia to Texas. Some remained in Hood and Erath Counties and some move on to Stephens County. Hope you are well. Have not heard from you lately. Keep in touch.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Janet. The importance of Gordon’s discovery on the McCleskey farm can hardly be exaggerated. I hope his widow got her new teeth and was eventually able to feel like smiling.

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