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Voices from the Oilfields

Using oral histories of early East Texas oil workers, recorded in the 1950s, we hear about the chaos and excess that accompanied the discovery of oil.

PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the history of oil in America. It’s a story characterized by excess, both in its extraction, and, as we hear about a lot these days, in our consumption of it. We’ve heard about the impact of that excess on markets. We want to take a few minutes now to consider some of the social excesses that have accompanied the discovery of oil throughout American history.

We got our hands on some oral history recordings from the 1950s. They are the voices of people remembering life near East Texas oil fields around the turn of the century. As you’ll hear in these excerpts, the boom towns that cropped up there were adrift with lawlessness, saloons, gambling, and murder.

MALE SPEAKER 2: Ah, there wasn’t no law much them days. Everybody was– free America then.

MALE SPEAKER 3: So that was a bad place.

MALE SPEAKER 4: It was a tough place.

MALE SPEAKER 3: It really was.

MALE SPEAKER 2: You betcha. Free America. Do as you please. Yes, sir.

MALE SPEAKER 3: Seemed a bit rougher because you didn’t have the bright lights, and the paving, or anything. Just mud and step from one board to another going down streets. Have board sidewalks where they have them at all. Living condition was very, very bad.

MALE SPEAKER 4: So overpopulated that they run the gas out from these big wells, and run it out a ways, and guide it, then they’d set that on fire to burn it. I have saw as many as 150 to 200 man lying around that fire in a big ring at night to sleep.

MALE SPEAKER 5: Why did they go there?

MALE SPEAKER 4: Because the was no other place for them to sleep. They couldn’t get no other place.

MALE SPEAKER 3: They a lot of saloons. Saloon on practically every corner almost. Or quite a few saloons.

MALE SPEAKER 5: How many saloons do you suppose they had here?

MALE SPEAKER 4: It was 52 at one time.

MALE SPEAKER 5: 52 saloons? And how many officers to enforce law?

MALE SPEAKER 6: They only had two officers here, active officers. And every direction you’d look there’d be a fistfight. And their jail was a big tree with a log chain around, and then they’d lock them to that tree, out in the open. That’s the only jail they had at that time. Five, six, seven, eight men or women chained to that tree.

MALE SPEAKER 5: How many people do you suppose were killed on–

MALE SPEAKER 2: I don’t no ideas. Don’t have no ideas. Lot’s of them though. Lot’s of them.

MALE SPEAKER 3: And there’s a lot of murders. Just a lot of them. And a lot of them never were solved. It was nothing uncommon to hear of a couple fellas get picked up out of the river.

MALE SPEAKER 2: We found quite a few of those floating in the river near. If they had an opportune, they would just knock a man in the head, or either shoot him, take what money he had and throw his body in the river.

MALE SPEAKER 7: No coffin. No services of any kind of description.

MALE SPEAKER 8: And that time went on and declared martial law, and got a bunch of soldiers in there, and kind of cleaned the town up.

MALE SPEAKER 9: Got it cleaned up, and law enforcement officers where they would do the job. Then as [INAUDIBLE] gradually subsided, so [INAUDIBLE] of this riffraff gradually drifted away.

MALE SPEAKER 10: You look back on those as the good old days?

MALE SPEAKER 11: Well, I can’t say that. Can’t say that. I’d hate awful bad to have to live that way again.

ED: Those were voices remembering the East Texas oil boom of the early years of the 20th century. They were recorded in the 1950s by the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas Austin. We’ll link to extended versions of those recordings at