Archive for March, 2020

Going MAD in El Dorado

Friday, March 6th, 2020

SEVENTH IN A SERIES

Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom that transformed this south Arkansas city.

One marker describes the cold afternoon of Jan. 10, 1921, when a physician and oil speculator named Sam Busey struck oil at a well near El Dorado. The plume of oil that sprayed into the sky could clearly be seen throughout the town of 3,800 residents.

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had soared to almost 30,000.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June.

“By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

Now, 99 years after the oil boom began, downtown El Dorado is hopping again. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in these parts for years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine. It’s an effort by the city’s business and civic leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population loss. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas.

El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. was created several years ago and then charged with giving life to this vision. More than $60 million was raised for the first phase of the project. The Griffin Building, constructed in 1928-29 during the oil boom to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, was transformed into a fine-dining venue and an indoor performance hall that holds more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An adjacent amphitheater was built to hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. There’s even a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad.

A planned second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery, provide housing for artists and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

Once all is said and done, more than $100 million will have been spent in downtown El Dorado.

The sounds of construction can be heard downtown as workers rush to complete a boutique hotel known as The Haywood.

Last spring, I went to El Dorado to emcee the groundbreaking event for the hotel. The shovels went into the dirt and the cameras clicked as city leaders, all wearing hardhats for the photo op, participated in the ceremony. The early spring weather couldn’t have been much better that day with temperatures in the 70s. In the old neighborhoods throughout the city, azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom. Hope springs eternal in the spring, and the folks in El Dorado are hoping The Haywood will be another successful piece in the complex puzzle that’s designed to offset the population losses that beset this part of the state.

Despite the presence of companies such as Murphy Oil Corp., Murphy USA and what’s now PotlatchDeltic, El Dorado’s population has decreased from 23,146 in the 1990 census to about 18,000 today. There are plenty of jobs available, mind you. There are also visionary leaders, scholarships for graduates of El Dorado High School and more things to do than ever before thanks to the money being sunk into the Murphy Arts District (known locally as MAD).

“If we can’t make it work here with the inherent advantages we already have, I’m not sure it can work at all in rural areas in this part of the country,” one business executive told me.

Rather than being resigned to consistent population losses, El Dorado’s leaders began fighting back more than a decade ago when they implemented the El Dorado Promise. The scholarship program provides graduating seniors with a grant for tuition and expenses at any two-year or four-year institution of higher education in the country. The initiative was the brainchild of Claiborne Deming, who at the time was the chief executive officer at Murphy Oil. Deming modeled it after the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. The Murphy Oil board approved an investment of $50 million to fund the scholarships.

Later that year, local voters passed an economic development tax. In 2011, a $43 million high school opened, and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum.

The El Dorado Conference Center, a $14.4 million facility downtown, was dedicated in 2011.

Even with all of these developments, El Dorado’s population has dropped by another 2,000 residents since 2007.

In August 2017, I spent a day in El Dorado with Deming and Madison Murphy to learn more about MAD. I asked Deming during lunch if the vast amount of money being spent on MAD was, in essence, an admission that the El Dorado Promise hadn’t worked as well as its founders had hoped.

Before Deming could answer, Murphy interjected: “I would hate to think where we would be without it.”

MAD is the next step in a coordinated effort to create a jewel in the pine woods of far south Arkansas. During that 2017 visit, Murphy told me that he was convinced that MAD would be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of The Alluvian at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel isn’t already open,” he said that day. “But I believe it will happen.”

Less than two years later, the dirt was being turned for a 70-room hotel that will cost more than $14 million.

The concept of “build it and they will come” doesn’t always play out. But I’ve seen it happen with The Alluvian, which was opened in 2003 by Viking Range Corp. in the Delta city where the high-dollar appliances are manufactured. The Alluvian is in the former Hotel Irving in downtown Greenwood. In 2005, Viking added a 7,000-square-foot spa, cooking school and store across the street.

During the four years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, I attended numerous meetings at Greenwood. I noticed the prosperous couples who were coming there to spend long weekends from as far away as the state capital at Jackson, Little Rock and even New Orleans.

Greenwood offers a nationally known cooking school and spa, but El Dorado will have the concerts at MAD, fine dining, a top golf course (Mystic Creek) and world-class art exhibitions.

Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and PotlatchDeltic must compete for talent against companies with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas. Deming, a Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, is often asked why one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy interjects: “It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and headed the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who was considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century. Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concepts. I don’t know what it’s going to look like years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living downtown. Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on the explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

Deming says: “We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because of the companies that are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs. So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we were still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment hub. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention that MAD will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar screen for everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the region.”

Murphy says those behind MAD aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. Still, they haven’t forgotten the past. A 110-foot oil derrick was placed adjacent to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado in the national spotlight. Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

As we toured MAD just before its formal opening back in 2017, Murphy stopped to take a call on his cell phone. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the subject of the phone conversation was wine. After all, the Murphy family owns a California winery named Presqu’ile in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley.

After the call, Murphy told me that the fine-dining restaurant at the Griffin would have one of the best wine lists around. He’s right. And every meal I’ve had there since it opened has been wonderful.

Everything about MAD is first class, from the wine list to the entertainment venues. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this audacious (yes, some would say they’re mad) effort to turn El Dorado into a regional arts and entertainment center is the leadership team that has been put together.

There has been worldwide attention — and rightfully so — on what Alice Walton has done to transform Bentonville into an arts hub. What has happened in the far northern part of the state since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on Nov. 11, 2011, has made Arkansans in all 75 counties proud. Meanwhile, down in far southern Arkansas, there’s a team at work whose background might surprise you.

It starts with Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. He took over the Cleveland institution in 1999 (it had opened in 1995) and stayed there until 2013.

What on earth is he doing in south Arkansas?

For starters, he’s a south Alabama native. Stewart understands the rural South and was excited by the opportunity to help transform a city and maybe even an entire region of a state by improving the quality of life. I first met Stewart five years ago while sitting with a group in the back yard of well-known El Dorado downtown developer and writer Richard Mason. Stewart’s enthusiasm was contagious from the get-go.

Prior to joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart was the president and chief operating officer of the comic book company Marvel Entertainment Group. Marvel became a public company in 1991, and Stewart was named that year by CNBC as the Marketing Executive of the Year.

“My career has taken many twists and turns through the years, and that’s how I like it,” Stewart said when he was hired at El Dorado in August 2014. “Working with El Dorado Festivals & Events will give me an opportunity to harness my passions and hopefully improve the quality of life for this region.”

El Dorado Festivals & Events was formed in 2011 following the completion of a study by Roger Brooks, a nationally known destination development expert. Business leaders in El Dorado asked Brooks to go beyond the old concepts of industrial development and come up with a new way to stem the tide of population decline in El Dorado. It was Brooks who suggested an arts and entertainment district that would draw visitors from across the region.

“Many industry people think I’m mad when I tell them about the El Dorado project,” Stewart said in interview with the El Dorado newspaper. “But it’s going to be the most important work of my carer when one considers the lives that will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we’re working to achieve. … We’re bringing song, dance, good food and theater to a community and region that has long been underserved.”

In a recent article for The Bitter Southerner, Tony Rehagen wrote: “Stewart brought in architect Paul Westlake, who had a hand in designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and four of the six largest performing arts centers in the United States. The MAD chief marketing officer, Bob Tarren, came from jobs with Circuit City corporate, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Frick Pittsburgh, and he was succeeded in late 2019 by Lisaann Dupont, the former communications and digital marketing guru for the Ryman Auditorium. Even Austin Johnson, executive chef in charge of the Griffin and the food at the other venues, has a Parisian pedigree. If the scale of this project sounds a bit outsized for a town of 18,000 people, it is. But MAD president and COO Pam Griffin says there are already shoots of early progress: Annual sales tax receipts are up 15 to 20 percent from pre-MAD levels, downtown businesses are growing and The Haywood … is set to open downtown this summer.

“But El Dorado doesn’t just want transient tourism dollars. The city wants to rebuild its cultural scene, its nightlife, its infrastructure and the community to make it attractive for companies that might consider relocating here. More importantly, it wants to keep the talented young people who make the Murphy companies run and who could help new companies thrive. And the only thing bigger than the investment of capital and energy into MAD are the stakes riding on its success.”

Murphy told Rehagen: “It has always been a little difficult to recruit here. And if we can’t recruit people, we can’t stay.”

Murphy later told the writer: “We’re going to go down swinging.”

Rehagen wrote: “The idea for MAD wasn’t drawn out of a hat. El Dorado is unique in that it has an appreciation for the arts that rivals most Southern towns’ passion for high school football. The tradition dates back to the oil boom when businessmen who flooded the town needed something to do with their families in the off hours. The grand Rialto was built in 1929 as a draw for fans of vaudeville and increasingly popular moving picture shows. Founded here in 1956, the South Arkansas Symphony is the oldest continually operating orchestra in the state. Walk into the South Arkansas Arts Center, opened in 1964 on the western edge of downtown, on any given Friday and you’ll see exhibits by local visual artists, perhaps a touring exhibition and hear singing or music from the auditorium where children rehearse for recitals, concerts or plays.

“Although plenty of townspeople knew about art and the lords of local industry knew about economic development, no one really seemed to connect the two. Enter Austin Barrow, an El Dorado community theater expat who left right after high school, went to Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in drama at the University of Arkansas, then ended up building a career in marketing and promotion for theaters and art galleries on the West Coast before moving to Georgia, where he was a drama department chair at a small college. In 2010, Madison Murphy and several other town leaders approached Barrow about coming home to oversee their best guess at what might work — an El Dorado Shakespeare Festival.”

Barrow, who resigned from MAD last year to return to the theater, told Rehagen: “I told them it was an absolutely crazy idea. Who’s going to come watch Shakespeare in El Dorado?”

Rehagen writes: “But Barrow was intrigued by the raw potential in his hometown. … Barrow joined Stewart, Tarren and Pam Griffin, then chair of the chamber of commerce. The group pitched the two-phase project to the city and met with little to no resistance. MAD was on its way to becoming reality.”

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Arkansas’ original boomtown

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020

SIXTH IN A SERIES

We pass through Strong on our way from Crossett to El Dorado. It was founded in the early 1900s as a community along the railroad tracks. Many of its residents (the city dropped from a high of 839 in the 1950 census to 558 in the 2010 census) are involved in the timber industry.

“Once the El Dorado & Bastrop Railway was completed, management posted notices calling leaders of surrounding small southern Union County communities to a meeting to discuss area development,” Mike Polston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “During the poorly attended meeting in Collinston, La., James Solomon Coleman offered a right-of-way to his land at present-day Strong for development. Railroad executives dispatched William Strong, who accepted the property after examination. Strong named the soon-to-be-constructed rail stop Victoria.

“Coleman had a 120-acre plot surveyed and began to sell lots in 1902. Henry Clay, who became the community’s first law enforcement officer, and his family were the first settlers. With Ernest J. Dugal as the first depot agent, Victoria began to grow. On April 10, 1903, the post office at nearby Concord in Union County was relocated to the new community with Stephen McBride as postmaster. By 1903, the Gorman brothers had opened the first mercantile store. The Victoria Bank also opened. The community was incorporated as a second-class city on Sept. 7, 1903.”

Here was the problem: Coleman named the train stop Strong in honor of the railroad employee. Also, postal officials discovered there was already a post office in Arkansas named Victoria. In August 1904, the post office was also referred to as Strong.

“Even into the 1940s, many local citizens continued to refer to it as Victoria,” Polston writes. “The growing city became an important supply source for local lumber operations and a shipping point for area cotton farmers. Soon, a city government was organized with H.A. Nelson as the first mayor. In 1903, Baptists were holding services in a local store. By 1906, the businesses included an ice house and bottle works. Electricity became available in 1914 when Arch Herring built a generating plant. Power was provided daily on a limited basis. A number of local men served in World War I with many of the women assisting the Red Cross in providing clothing for the troops. These women met regularly in a room over a local business to knit clothing and roll bandages. By 1920, the city’s population exceeded 500.”

The Strong Lumber Co. became the leading business in town.

“On May 9, 1927, a tornado hit the city,” Polston writes. “In the afternoon, the storm entered the southwestern tip of the city, passing through the main business district. Before leaving the town, the twister destroyed an area about three blocks wide and more than a mile long. Thirty people were killed, and an estimated 100 or more were injured. The Red Cross operated an aid station to provide assistance. Some of the dead were buried in combined funerals. The city quickly recovered from the deadly storm with much of the business district being replaced by new brick structures. Included in the new construction were a large warehouse, two electric cotton gins and a 16-room schoolhouse with an auditorium.

“By the 1930s, perhaps due to its proximity to sawmill camps, the city had begun to develop a reputation as a rough place. It was reported to be home to several houses of prostitution. During Prohibition, alcohol was supplied by local moonshiners. After repeal, the city had as many as eight alcohol-serving establishments, including one called the Bloody Bucket. Fights were said to be common, and a few deaths were reported.”

If it had not been for the discovery of oil, nearby El Dorado likely would be a much smaller place with an economy dependent on the timber industry. But the oil boom changed everything. It also produced larger-than-life figures such as Samuel Thompson Busey, T. H. Barton and Charles H. Murphy Jr. Let’s start with Busey.

Busey was born in Illinois in 1867. He was trained as a physician but later became a geologist.

“Busey came from a family of adventurers and community activists,” Kenneth Bridges and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His father was a farmer until 1845, when he left farming to travel across the United States. His father then took over his own father’s farm in 1856. John Busey would later win election as a Democrat to the Illinois Houses of Representatives in 1862 and would continue his interests in agricultural issues as he became involved in the Greenback Party in the 1870s and the sale of agricultural implements.

“Busey’s namesake and his father’s brother, Samuel Thompson Busey, rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general of Illinois volunteers during the Civil War and later served as a Democratic congressman from 1891-93. Busey’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Jacob F. Snyder, left his medical practice in Indiana for California in 1849 to participate in the gold rush before heading to Urbana, Ill, in 1850 to resume work as a physician.”

Beginning in 1890, Samuel Busey traveled to Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. For a time, he lived in Mexico City and practiced medicine there. Busey went to Texas in 1901 to look at the Spindletop oil well near Beaumont.

“Afterward, he and a group of investors attempted to drill oil wells near Vera Cruz with mixed results,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “As the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, Busey closed his medical practice and once again resumed traveling. He eventually made his way to Bolivia, involving himself in a number of business activities. He organized the financing of the first successful rubber plantation in Bolivia and in 1915 successfully completed an oil well in that country. He returned to the United States, excited by his success in Bolivian oil. He lived for a time in New Jersey, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the late 1910s, continuing to explore for oil.

“In 1920, a well east of El Dorado was drilled and showed a large natural gas flow. Busey was in Homer, La., about 40 miles away, and rode a horse to El Dorado to confirm the well information the next day. Unable to find a room, Busey bought the Arcade Hotel for $2,500.  By this time, the Mitchell-Bonham Drilling Co. had acquired drilling rights on the 80-acre David R. Armstrong farm southwest of El Dorado. It had drilled a well to a depth of about 1,700 feet, but operations were suspended for financial difficulties. On Nov. 15, 1920, Busey met with local investors and took 51 percent ownership of the company, along with rights to the well, all tools and the 80-acre tract that was being drilled.”

Drilling resumed, but Busey had to sell some shares of the company in order to meet drilling expenses.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, at 4:30 p.m., the Busey No. 1 well, as it was then named, was drilled to a depth of 2,233 feet and struck oil,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “Oil erupted to the surface, spraying the area with oil for more than a mile around. Busey’s rich discovery well produced an astounding 15 million to 35 million cubic feet of natural gas and between 3,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil and water daily. This led to the oil boom that began petroleum development in Arkansas.

“A frenzy struck El Dorado as thousands of speculators swarmed into the area seeking their fortunes, with Busey credited for it all. He quickly sold the hotel for $5,000 and was besieged by offers for the well. People sent money from all over the country to Busey for him to invest in the new south Arkansas oil industry. He declined the offers for the well and quietly returned all the money sent to him. He began drilling in other areas of Union County.”

Busey and other speculators later believed oil would be found near Monticello. He predicted that Monticello would be “the next El Dorado,” but no oil reserves were found there. Busey operated oil leases in the El Dorado and Smackover areas until 1928 when he sold his Arkansas properties. He later lived in Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Busey died in 1962 in Maryland.

Barton, whose name lives on with Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, was born at Marlin, Texas, in 1881. He attended Texas A&M for a time, served in the U.S. Army from 1901-04 and eventually found his way to Arkansas, where he worked in the lumber and banking industries in Dallas County. Barton was in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1920-36, when he was discharged with the rank of colonel. He was widely known as Col. Barton for the rest of his life.

“Barton arrived in El Dorado in January 1921, only days after oil was discovered,” Don Lambert and Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He quickly organized the El Dorado Natural Gas Co. and expanded it into the Natural Gas & Fuel Corp. in 1924. He served as its president until 1929 when he sold it to Cities Service Co. During this time, he became the principal stockholder in the struggling Lion Oil Refining Co.

“On July 13, 1925, Barton married Madeline Mary Latimer. Their plans to travel were curtailed in 1929 when he agreed to serve as Lion Oil’s president. Within three months, Lion had purchased producing leases in the Smackover oil field, which was literally overflowing with a colossal output of petroleum. The company continued to expand and, in 1935, discovered the third major producing geological zone in the Smackover Field. In 1937, Lion drilled the wildcat discovery well in the Shuler Field, 15 miles west of El Dorado. Barton leased 7,000 acres and initiated development in a field that ranked second only to the Smackover discovery. By 1955, the company employed 3,000 people. Lion products were sold by 2,000 service stations across the South.”

Barton became one of the state’s leading philanthropists. He worked with the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, which named Barton Coliseum for him when it was dedicated in September 1952. He also was a major donor to what’s now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock along with major institutions in El Dorado such as Warner-Brown Hospital, Barton Library and Memorial Stadium. He died in December 1960 at his home in El Dorado.

Another oil baron who remained in El Dorado until he died was Charles Haywood Murphy Jr. He was born in El Dorado in March 1920. His father had moved there in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, the elder Murphy owned 13 banks in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The elder Murphy also built a sawmill south of El Dorado at Cargile and then constructed a railroad to supply the mill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so that he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator (not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area) while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.

“Murphy attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy at age 16 and then received extensive tutoring, primarily in French. He was a voracious reader. Murphy graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and married Johnnie Azelle Walker on Oct. 12, 1938. They had three sons and one daughter. He spent three years in the Army during World War II and returned to lead the Murphy businesses, having selected M.C. Hoover to run them in his absence. In 1946, Murphy and his siblings — Caroline M. Keller, Bertie M. Deming and Theodosia M. Nolan — pooled their business interests into C.H. Murphy & Co. Murphy was selected as the managing partner. In 1950, C.H. Murphy & Co. was incorporated as Murphy Corp. with Murphy as president, a position he held until 1972. He also served as chairman of the board until 1994.”

Murphy expanded the corporation as it participated in the development of oil-producing properties in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and elsewhere.

“Early entry in potential operations and vigorous leadership made Murphy Oil a viable corporation,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy also served as a director of First Commercial Corp., later Regions Bank. He served as chairman of the National Petroleum Council and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute. He also served 17 years on the Arkansas Board of Higher Education, served 10 years as a trustee of Hendrix College and established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in 1980. He was a director of the Smithsonian Institution and a trustee of the Ochsner medical center in New Orleans. Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, Murphy was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee. … Murphy also enjoyed yachting and wrote two books on the subject.”

Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr. decided to begin purchasing additional land in the event oil was discovered in south Arkansas.

“When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy Sr. had oil royalty interests in it,” Ragsdale writes. “He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and producing risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interest in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by Lion Oil, which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field on extensive acreage for Murphy.”

As noted earlier, Murphy Sr.’s four children pooled their timberland and oil interests in 1946 to form C.H. Murphy & Co. It became the Murphy Corp. in 1950 and Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964.

“From this stable beginning, the company continued operation in the oil and gas business,” Ragsdale writes. “In 1951, the company began production in the large East Poplar Field in Montana and began moving on to other areas. Four years later, the company acquired Marine Oil Co., which operated in the Smackover Field and other fields in south Arkansas and of which Charles Murphy Sr. had been a joint owner.

“In 1956, Murphy Oil became a public company by sale of stock on the American Stock Exchange. This allowed acquisition of Superior Refinery, Spur Oil Co. and Ingram Oil & Refining Co. Subsequently, Murphy acquired Amurex Oil Co., which was to be combined with the Murphy Oil Co. LTD in Canada. In 1957, Murphy and other operators joined in exploration and developed oil production in Venezuela, their first foreign development. The company established production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea in 1969, Libya in 1969 and Spain in 1979. Murphy also acquired an interest in the massive Syncrude Project in Alberta, Canada. Additional production was established in Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988.”

Murphy was heavily involved with the Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., which named one of its barges the “Mr. Charlie.” According to Ragsdale, it became “the prototype for other submersible drilling barges and some semi-submersible barges, the latter being barges that can either float or be submerged to the sea floor. This decision replaced the costly driving of piles and then decking for drilling rig usage. This was a great development in increasing the mobility of drilling equipment in shallow water of up to 65 feet deep. It was used offshore in Louisiana.

“Other operations to support oil production were the Butte Pipeline Co. in Montana, established by Murphy Oil and other producers for the transportation of crude, and the River States Oil Co. in Wisconsin, a company purchased by Murphy to transport petroleum products. Refining operations included the Lake Superior Refining Co. in Superior, Wisc.; the Ingram Refinery in Meraux, La.; and the Milford Haven in Wales.”

Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. The company owned thousands of acres of timberlands in Arkansas and Louisiana along with processing plants at Waldo and Ola. In 2018, Deltic merged with the larger Potlatch Corp. of Seattle (which had long had operations in Arkansas) to form the PotlatchDeltic Corp.

Murphy’s retail gas sales increased tremendously after an agreement with Walmart to operate stations in the parking lots of the company’s stores. The retail operations were spun off in 2013 into Murphy USA. Murphy Oil now focuses on exploration and production rather than retail sales.

The chemical industry remains strong in El Dorado, dating back in part to the Ozark Ordnance Works. The federal War Department informed U.S. Rep. Oren Harris of El Dorado in October 1941 that it had approved $23 million for an ammonia plant. Ozark Ordnance Works produced ammonia and ammonium nitrate used in manufacturing explosives and in filling bombs and shells. The plant was built and operated by Lion Oil.

In a 1947 interview, Barton said: “When we were negotiating for this plant, the War Department told us flatly we could not produce ammonia from natural gas. They did not know us Southerners. It took a lot of talk and argument, but we finally won out.”

Lion hired 17 engineers and immediately sent them to Canada for training. Production took place from 1943 until the end of World War II in 1945. The building that housed the gas engines that produced electricity to power the plant was the size of two football fields. There were almost 700 employees during the war.

After the war, Lion continued production for commercial purposes. Monsanto merged with Lion’s chemical division in 1955 and operated the plant under the Monsanto name until July 1983. It was sold to El Dorado Chemical Co. that year.

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