Oklahoma town Drumright celebrates 100 years since first oil rig striking

DRUMRIGHT, Okla. -- When oilman Tom Slick died in 1930, five states tried to claim him as a native son.

The nation's stock market had gone bust one year earlier, and the fortune Slick left behind created a smaller fortune in estate taxes big enough to run a state's government for years.

The five states agreed to do something he never would have approved of: split the bounty. Each got a piece of the $970,000 in estate taxes left behind from Slick's success.

But two took home the most: Oklahoma, the state where he struck oil and earned his fortune, received $414,000. And the state where he learned how to find that oil -- they say he could smell it in the sand -- received $353,000.

That was Pennsylvania.

The man who grew up as "Dry Hole Slick" would die the "King of the Wildcatters" because of his prowess in finding oil, first in this Oklahoma town and later in other fields. Along the way, his discoveries created whole towns like Drumright: commodity communities founded because of the oil beneath them and that still exist because the resource hasn't run out yet.

One of the earliest and loudest objections to the rise of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry was to the arrival of out-of-state experts imported from Texas and Oklahoma to do Pennsylvania work. For some of that, you can thank the chain-smoking, 20th-century wildcatter with the perfect name.

The Pennsylvania native and his contemporaries helped turn Oklahoma into one of the nation's energy hotbeds. In a testament to the cyclical, boom-bust world of energy production, that state now has expertise to send back to Pennsylvania, as drillers tap the new Marcellus Shale natural gas play.

It's impossible to say if Drumright is a future version of today's shale towns, though it does offer an extreme example of what it's like to live not just above a fossil fuel but also to depend on it for a living -- from the difficulty of being a dissenting voice to the annual parade floats dictated by worldwide oil prices.

Gas drilling may be creating new boomtowns in the mold of Pennsylvania's own Oil City, but so far these new places have nothing on Drumright. Residents here read the "Drumright Gusher" newspaper (circulation: 1,600), and visitors sleep in a motel called the Boomtown Inn (capacity: 22 rooms).

Earlier this month, residents of this century-old town about 80 miles northeast of Oklahoma City gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Slick's first rig striking the sweet crude that built the school, paved the roads and created the community.

On this year's "Discovery Day," like the many that came before, there was cotton candy, oil company coloring books and a horse-drawn carriage that took kids along the back roads to see that inaugural gusher.

Called the Wheeler No. 1 well, it struck in 1912, sending oil flying several stories high. Until that point, Mr. Slick had drilled so many duds that he was called "Dry Hole Slick." He was born the son of a field worker near the original Drake Well in Titusville, Pa., and his dad worked in the oil fields of West Virginia before Tom left for Oklahoma at 21 years old.

When the Wheeler well hit oil, Dry Hole Slick sprung into action, hustling to monopolize drilling in the area. He rented all of the rigs and signed up all of the wagons and, according to one competing land man at the time, hired all of the local officials who could help handling leases.

"I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases," the land man wrote. "And damned if Slick hadn't hired every notary in town, too."

The Wheeler well led to a land rush and created what became known as the Cushing-Drumright Field, which at its peak produced more than 330,000 barrels of oil per day. A journalist writing for the Drumright Derrick in the first year of the boom sounded like the shale industry of today: "No one has any intelligent conception of the real possibilities here."

To avoid the legal rigmarole that came with drilling on nearby Native American land, Slick would wait until someone else had figured out the paperwork and then just buy the leases outright to expand his Oklahoma empire.

His aggressive tactics and success would warrant a new moniker: "King of the Wildcatters."

The new monarch began an 18-year streak of drilling wells throughout Oklahoma, helping secure the state's current place as one of the nation's leading drillers. The town of Cushing, about 15 miles away, is the pipeline crossroads of America, transporting oil from Drumright and other towns to parts of North America.

When Slick died at the age of 46, oil derricks in Drumright stopped operating for an hour, standing still in tribute.

This year's Discovery Days celebration featured a local dinner theater actor hired to play Mr. Slick, and he led tours to the Wheeler well, telling kids about some of oil's first uses.

In the olden days, he said, you could swallow a little bit to kill tapeworms.

"But don't drink any more. It'll kill the worm and it'll kill you," said Clarence Benes, a hard hat on his head and a name tag reading "Tom Slick" on his tie. He was paid only $50 to play the millionaire but said money wasn't an issue.

"Why does an actor act?" he said. "Same reason a fish swims."

To prepare for the role, Mr. Benes studied up on the elusive Mr. Slick, who is honored as an official Conoco Oil Pioneer but has maintained the kind of historical profile that results from a lifetime of almost-paranoid secrecy about his private affairs.

When Ray Miles, a professor of Native American history at McNeese State University in Louisiana, wrote a book about Slick, his research was funded by the patriarch's family because they "knew relatively little" about the man.

For a "very private individual," Slick built a family with some very public affairs.

His son, Thomas Slick Jr., took after the kind of vocational pursuits unique to the squires of the mega-rich, leading expeditions to find the Loch Ness monster and the Abominable Snowman, and spending millions advocating for world peace. The Tom Slick Professorship of World Peace still exists at the University of Texas. Junior had a life so crazy that Nicolas Cage even considered playing him in a movie.

Today, the Slick name lives in Drumright on celebratory murals and on a plaque near the Wheeler well, which still produces about 20 barrels of oil per day. A tunnel that Slick dug to house armed guards still sits nearby.

The fortunes of Drumright have ebbed and flowed with the price of oil over the years. During the 1980s bust brought on by a worldwide surplus of oil, the major firms skipped town. Smaller, local operations moved in.

Oklahoma's experienced workers have become exportable resources for states that start drilling without a workforce in place. One Drumright couple noted that they are moving to Pittsburgh to work in the shale industry, and about 20 of the town's men are in North Dakota now tending that state's booming oil fields.

Drumright resident Pam Scott doesn't know how Pennsylvania -- a place she views as "prim and proper" -- will handle the energy industry. She has relatives in the Keystone State, and "their barns look better than our homes," she said.

Indeed, Pennsylvania does have one thing that Drumright does not: controversy over energy practices. In fact, only one sort-of anti-drilling "fractivist" could be found at the Discovery Days.

Erin Trippy is the town's nurse practitioner and a self-proclaimed "tree hugger" who huddles with the other few liberals in town. She tells patients not to drink the water in Drumright -- says the water's never been good -- and worries that continued drilling and fracking operations are making it worse.

But it's hard for anyone to completely disavow the industry in a town that only exists because of it: A local oilman lent Mrs. Trippy the money she needed to open her practice.

Oil infuses everything here. Science-fair-sized model derricks are on display at the historical museum, while an actual derrick spins outside. After the Discovery Days festivities, folks were headed to Barbeque and Blues, an annual shindig thrown by the oil companies, each of which cooks a rack of ribs and competes to see whose tastes sweetest.

And on the Fourth of July, there's the Oil Patch Festival put on by the largest local firm, the Keystone Gas Corp. It's got food, drinks, singers, jugglers, magicians, skydivers and fireworks.

When oil prices are high, the Oil Patch parade can go on for hours. When they're low, it's not as long.

Oil on the worldwide market has dipped recently but traded around $100 per barrel for most of the year.

Drumright's planning a party.

marcellusshale - environment

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. First Published June 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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