History: A Prelude to Redneck Opera
A single event a century ago marked the beginning of a dramatic new era in the Lone Star state. In October of 1900, Captain Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining Engineer, joined up with two wildcatter oilmen, James Guffey and John Galey in Beaumont, Texas, on Spindletop Hill to drill for oil. The drill bit lodged in a crevice at 1,006 feet around Christmastime.
What happened next was to be the best Christmas present ever for these men, the State of Texas and the economic fabric of the world.
As the men worked to free the drill, an enormous gusher of oil blew into the sky. Thus began the story and legend of Texas oil. Dirt-poor cotton farmers were simply drilling water wells and suddenly up came a gusher of oil.
It was all there under that red-orange-iron-oxide-clay goat-pen of a county. Rich with minerals and black gold. No wonder those pine trees grew so tall and healthy. Their roots were sunk in the very ground that some people say fueled the Allied victory in WW II.
Yes, sir, some say that.
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“If there’s anybody else in the book you want to know about, just send me an email and I’ll respond, especially if they’re dead, in which case I can get real specific.”
The idea of Junior came from our across-the-street neighbor in the mid sixties, when I was in high school. He was a wildcatter named Alfred. We called him “Honest Al the Investor’s Pal.” He would take my daddy on road trips to Zoilly, Louisiana to look for places to drill for oil. To this day, people I know from Louisiana don’t know where Zoilly is. I know there’s no oil there.
Al would make frequent trips to New York to court investors. For those trips, he would wear khaki pants, stacked heel ostrich boots, khaki pearl snap button western shirts, a Stetson hat, and bolo tie. My brother once asked him why he dressed like that. He said, “Teddy, the investors expect me to. They want to deal with a real Texan.” I’m not sure if Al was a real Texan. He had a beautiful wife whom he would shower with elaborate jewelry and furs when a well would start producing. Frequently, he would try to sell those jewels to my daddy when his wildcatting efforts came up dry. When he came to visit, he would drink milk and scotch. He said the milk was for his ulcer and the scotch was for his nerves.
Junior is also based on one other wildcatter who would throw big all night parties on Saturday nights at his Lake Cherokee lake house when one of his wells would come in. Sunday mornings, one of the town’s preachers would deliver his sermon and actually name the names of the people who attended the lake house parties. Then the preacher would go home, drink beer and watch college football. The wildcatter regularly chartered a private jet and flew his friends to Las Vegas when he was flush with cash. During down times, he borrowed money from those same friends.
Junior’s swindles are a composite of several wildcatters from Longview, a judge I dated who never went to law school and a businessman from Silicon Valley.
Priss is based on one of my high school girlfriends. She was a tad plump and her daddy had a lot of oil money. She did get dates but they were, as her mother put it “beneath her station.” She was very social and generous in asking people to her house after school and on weekends. Her parents didn’t pay much attention when she threw parties in the basement. We preferred parties at her house for that very reason. That basement is where I learned to play spin the bottle after we all drank it. She grew up to be the stylish, trim-figured wife of a wildcatter.
Pop Teasle is basically the man holding the pitchfork in the famous Grant Wood painting, American Gothic. He represents lots of my parents’ friends who were unassuming cotton farmers or lumbermen who hit oil on their property but didn’t let it change them much. They merely exchanged their bib overalls for loud plaid pants and learned to play golf at the local country club.
Mim Teasle is a composite of several grandmothers I have known in West Virginia and Texas. Like my mother and many of her friends, Mim grew weary of making meals, ironing and keeping house so she took to taking shortcuts in meal preparation. This went unnoticed by the family, validating her feelings that they didn’t really care. As wise as she was plain, Mim held her personal family and religious values high, regardless of any setbacks.
Talford is based on one of my high school boyfriends who apparently was not yet gay. I was madly in love with him, and my parents didn’t worry if I was home a little past curfew. Later, I understood why. When we did get home, Talford would re-arrange our living room furniture and I must admit, it looked better after he finished.
Tim is another high school boyfriend. According to my mother, he was “beneath my station.” Tim would come for me in his beat up car. My daddy would grill him about his future plans for college, which he didn’t have, while my dachshund humped his leg. Then, dressed in white, we ostensibly went off to play tennis. In truth, we went to an apartment the high school seniors had rented for the summer with the help of one of the cheerleader’s dads. One of our other friends’ dad owned the hardware store. He took a police radio from the hardware store for us to listen to so we’d know if the police were coming to the apartment. They never did. I think Tim is in jail now for who knows what.
Research Notes & Acknowledgements
For this website, I needed to find some oil patch images of men and women in the 1940’s to 1950’s. The only ones available in stock photography were of J.R. Ewing. I called several “historical preservation societies” in East Texas to see what I might find.
The first place I called, the maintenance man answered and said, “I’m just trying to help out today because there are so many school kids here we don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re just overrun.” The second place was the bookstore in another small town.
The lady who answered said that their preservation society had a couple of books that might help me. I asked for their phone number. She said, “Oh honey, they’re not open all the time. They’re hardly ever open so let me just walk down there and see if somebody’s in today.” I lost cell contact as she was walking.
Finally, I hit pay dirt. Two gentlemen from Kilgore, Texas wrote and compiled two comprehensive books about the wildcatting days. Most of the images on this website are from their books. Terry Stembridge and Caleb Pirtle III are the co-authors of Voices from Forgotten Streets and Echoes from Forgotten Streets.
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Margaret Mooney grew up in East Texas, moved to Chicago to pursue a career in advertising and received numerous awards including creativity.
In 2005, Margaret moved to Santa Fe, where she immersed herself in the nonprofit world. Redneck Opera is Margaret’s first novel and is loosely based on real life characters.
She lives with her husband Larry Davis in the Cerrillos Hills, south of Santa Fe.