Arkansas’ original boomtown

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 and Argentina. 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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