‘It just made Longview’: Oil well discovery changed East Texas forever

From the perspective of 90 years, W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. still remembers the hazy, rainy day the well came in. It was a day that forever changed East Texas history.

The date was Jan. 26, 1931, when his father, Fort Worth oilman William Alvin “Monty” Moncrief, and two partners completed what became known as the Lathrop No. 1 well in the Greggton area near Longview. Anticipation of its success had drawn a crowd to the site, all hoping to witness a gusher like those they’d heard of recently 15 and 25 miles to the south.

“The people around there had let the schools out,” Moncrief recalled in a 2017 interview. “There were hundreds of people around the hillside. They had let all the schools out.”

What appeared to be muddy water surfaced first, and it trickled slowly into a pit about half a city block in size. As they watched, Moncrief said, onlookers were disappointed because the mud was oozing so slowly.

“It took maybe a couple of minutes to kick out at 30 feet,” he said. Then, “it shot out about 90 to 100 feet. When it shot out 100 feet, it made solid oil.”

It was the third gusher in East Texas in two months, and the one that began to illustrate these were not discrete finds but wells tapping into what soon would become a massive producing oilfield.

The ensuing boom revealed the 130,000-acre East Texas Oilfield, stretching nearly 45 miles from north to south and from four to eight miles wide. It transformed East Texas from an agrarian economy into a series of boomtowns and put the region on the world map.

‘Flooded with people’

People soon realized the well, the first in Gregg County, was part of “one great field created by an incredible deposit of oil that filled a large part of the great Woodbine blanket,” James A. Clark wrote in “East Texas Oil Field ... the first 25 years,” a booklet published in 1955.

The Woodbine formation stretched from Fort Worth to the west, south to Houston, north to Oklahoma and east to Shreveport, Moncrief said.

After the Lathrop discovery, Gregg County was “flooded with people from all over the nation who were anxious to see Mother Nature unfold another one of her mysteries,” Mazie Kuykendall wrote in a thesis presented to the history department faculty at East Texas State Teachers College in 1950. “The natives, too, were ready and anxious to share in the profits.”

Moncrief confirmed that.

“Hell, we were having a hard time then, you know,” he said of those days during the Great Depression. “It just made Longview. It made the state of Texas.”

At 97 at the time of this interview and living in Fort Worth, Moncrief said he knew then he wanted to become an oilman like his father.

The well is named for hog farmer Frank Lathrop, who owned 40 acres when he approached Moncrief’s father, offered to lease the land and split the oil royalties.

The senior Moncrief arranged several leases, eventually covering between 2,000 and 3,000 acres, Tex Moncrief said.

The first two

The Lathrop was the third of three so-called discovery wells that heralded the opening of the new field.

The first was the Daisy Bradford No. 3, completed in October 1930 near Overton in Rusk County, and the Lou Della Crim, nine miles north of the Daisy Bradford and completed in December 1930.

The Daisy Bradford was a testament to the stubborn dedication of Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner, a wildcatter who started drilling in 1927 and never gave up his belief there was oil under Rusk County’s farm fields. He placed what Kuykendall described as his “antiquated machinery” and wooden derricks on Bradford’s farm.

“Work on the first well moved slowly; pipe used in drilling was old and frequently stuck in the hole and had to be fished out,” she wrote.

Joiner drilled as deep as 2,500 feet, but produced only two dry holes in three years.

Not a quitter, Joiner began a third try and, at 3,512 feet, encountered saturated oil sand. Toward sundown Oct 5, 1930, the well shot mud, water and oil into the air and above the derrick.

Crowds cheered, and oilmen began arriving shortly from New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas to acquire leases and try their luck, as well, Kuykendall wrote.

Two months later, oil fever had begun to mount with a production test by Bateman Oil Co. on the Crim family farm, according to literature from the East Texas Oil Museum at Kilgore College. While Mrs. Lou Della Crim attended church, the first well there blew in, flowing at 22,000 barrels a day.

Billions of barrels

Citing the Bureau of Mines as the source, Kuykendall reported the East Texas oilfield skyrocketed from producing 27,000 barrels in 1930 to almost 110 million barrels in 1931. From 1930 through April 1949, it produced 2.6 billion barrels, bureau data showed.

There is little official state data about those and other early wells, because Texas only began charting energy development some years later, releasing the first Oil and Gas Division Annual Report in 1935, according to Katie McKee, spokeswoman for Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.

At the beginning of 1935, the report shows, the East Texas Oilfield had 944 operators, 3,190 leases and 15,788 wells. By the end of that year, there were 1,064 operators, 3,473 leases and 19,313 wells. Production neared 159 million barrels of oil that year.

Today, the field contains more than 30,300 historic and active wells, according to the Texas State Historical Association, and has produced more than 5.42 billion barrels of oil.

As for the Lathrop No. 1, it produced 5 million barrels from 1931 to the mid-1970s, Tex Moncrief said. He estimated it dropped to a barrel or two a day by the late 1970s. A state historical marker on the site states the well produced more than 527,000 barrels in its first 35 years.

The well has not been plugged, but is inactive and has not been producing since at least 2005, according to Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry. Basa Resources holds the lease that contains the well.

The lease contains 13 oil wells, Nye reported. From January 1993 to March of this year, the lease has produced 620,914 barrels of oil and 357,235 thousand cubic feet of natural gas.

‘Still working on deals’

The oil boom in East Texas made Monty Moncrief a wealthy man, and his good fortunes followed him throughout his lifetime, according to a family biography. He died at age 90 with son Tex by his side.

After earning a degree in petroleum engineering in 1942 from the University of Texas, Tex Moncrief went to work for Consolidated Vultee, a B-24 bomber plant in Fort Worth. He was soon back in the oilfield though, going to work at Stanolind Oil & Gas and moving to Greggton, where he worked as an oilfield engineer.

His son, Charlie, carried on the family tradition and became a geologist.

“I ain’t retired,” Moncrief said. “I want to work till I die. I’m still working on deals.”

Reflecting on his long life, Moncrief said, “The East Texas field occupied a fine spot in my heart.”