SECOND IN A SERIES
A few oil wells are visible as we make our way north out of El Dorado on Arkansas Highway 7.
By 1925, there were almost 3,500 wells in Union County pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined significantly by the late 1930s.
We’re on a divided, four-lane portion of the highway. It’s easy to speed on this stretch, which passes near Norphlet and touches the outskirts of Smackover.
There are small, rolling hills and millions of pine trees.
“The forested hills of Union County were thinly populated until after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The railroad industry, combined with the timber industry, brought new life to the area. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway built a line running from Gurdon through El Dorado that was completed in January 1891. Norphlet was one of several depots created along the railway. The timber industry was prominent in the settlement of Norphlet for the first 30 years of its existence.
“The town was reportedly named for Nauphlet Goodwin, but the name Nauphlet was misspelled as Norphlet by the Postal Department when the town’s post office was created in 1891. Norphlet was actually the third name selected for the small settlement. Its post office was first designated Haymos and then Jess before becoming Norphlet, all in the same year.”
The oil boom changed everything.
Employees of Oil Operators Trust struck a pocket of natural gas on May 14, 1922. The gas began to escape at a rate of 65 million to 75 million cubic feet per day.
“Efforts to cap the hole were ineffective, and on the morning of May 16, the gas ignited, shooting flames more than 300 feet into the air and creating a crater at least 450 feet across and 75 feet deep,” Teske writes. “The explosion and fire, which demolished the oil derrick, sent fragments of shale up to 10 miles away from Norphlet. A second well, drilled a few weeks later in an effort to reduce the fuel supply of the fire, also caught fire and created a second crater. But the oil industry continued to thrive in Union County as the Smackover Field was successfully tapped in other locations.
“Many oil workers came to Norphlet and the other communities of the area, and hotels, taverns and other businesses quickly arose. Prostitution and gambling were prevalent, and law enforcement only gradually began to establish order in the region. … The population fluctuated at first but became more stable when the MacMillan Oil Refinery was established in the city. The oil refinery closed in 1987. The property was bought by Nor-Ark Industrial Corp. but was abandoned in 1991. Oil had contaminated surrounding waters, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site through its national Superfund program. The cleanup was completed in 1997.”
And what about that crater from 1922?
It’s filled with water and surrounded by a fence. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Norphlet’s population fell from 1,063 residents in the 1930 census to 459 in 1960. It was back up to 844 by 2010 with many residents driving into El Dorado for work.
Nearby Smackover, meanwhile, fell from 2,544 residents in the 1930 census to 1,865 in the 2010 census.
The Smackover Field, which covers 68 square miles, led the nation in oil output in 1925.
“The name Smackover is possibly derived from chemin couvert (meaning covered way), though later histories attribute the name to an 18th-century French description of the north and south-central areas of Union and Ouachita counties dubbed sumac couvert, meaning covered with sumac,” writes local historian Don Lambert.
Prior to the discovery of oil, the economy in this area of the state was dominated by cotton farming and a timber industry that moved in to clear the virgin forests.
A post office designated as Smackover opened in 1879 about five miles from the town’s current location. An unincorporated town named Henderson City sprung up along the railroad that ran from Camden to Alexandria, La. The Smackover post office moved there, and the community became known as Smackover.
“By 1908, Sidney Albert Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town,” Lambert writes. “He believed that oil lay beneath the earth’s surface in the region. Few paid attention, but Umsted quietly went about buying land and leasing what was not for sale. An economic blockbuster was about to alter the destiny of a town and its people. In July 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well reached a depth of 2,066 feet. Abruptly, a rumble came from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The crew stepped away, listening. Suddenly, a thick black column of oil burst forth and spurted high above the earth.
“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled with a success rate of 92 percent. The little town had increased from a mere 90 people to 25,000, and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention. Smackover was officially incorporated on Nov. 3, 1922. Lawlessness was so rampant that, among the 25 petitioners on the incorporation document, none was willing to hold public office. Later that month, the town saw a multi-day riot of unbridled violence. The town’s population steadily declined as oil companies and their employees moved away when more lucrative oil discoveries were made in Texas and Oklahoma. About 100 independent oil companies replaced the 12 major petroleum corporations in this period.”
The population dropped from 25,000 to 2,500, and an environmental disaster was left behind.
Exploration and drilling increased again during World War II due to heavy demand. The oil industry is still active here, though most operators are small.
Umsted, known as the “Father of the Smackover Oil Field,” had been born in Texas in 1876. His father abandoned the family, and his mother moved her children back to her native Chidester in Ouachita County when Sid Umsted was a boy. She remarried when her son was 8, and the family headed to north Louisiana and settled on a farm near Bernice. Umsted worked in sawmills across north Louiana as a teenager. He owned a sawmill near Homer by the time he was 22 and later moved his operations to Junction City on the Arkansas-Louisiana line. He moved farther north to the Smackover area in 1905.
“His mill served as the primary source of employment in an otherwise undeveloped economic area,” Don Lambert and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He immediately purchased and leased several hundred acres of land north into Ouachita County with the bulk of it situated in what’s now recognized as the Standard-Umsted/Snow Hill locale. In 1919, oil was discovered in northern Louisiana. Umsted was familiar with the area and recognized that his Arkansas land embodied surface characteristics similar to the acreage that spawned the prolific Homer oil field. By 1921, successful oil discoveries were made in the El Dorado region only 12 miles south of Smackover. Umsted quickly organized an exploration venture that included four partners from Camden — W.W. Brown, T.J. Gaughan, J.D. Reynolds and J.C. Usery, who shared a half-interest with the V.K.F. Oil Co. of Shreveport, which agreed to drill one well for a small share.”
The July 1922 gusher and subsequent discoveries made Umsted and his partners wealthy.
The area around Umsted’s sawmill was purchased in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. A small community still goes by the unusual name of Standard-Umsted. Now a millionaire, Umsted built a mansion in Camden in 1924 that still stands. In October 1925, a train on which Umsted was riding derailed in Mississippi. He died Nov. 3, 1925, in a Memphis hospital at the age of just 49.
As we drive along Highway 7 talking about the area’s fascinating history, I want to know more about that November 1922 Smackover riot.
Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “A hooded and robed cleanup committee — possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan or some related group — rode through the Smackover oil fields in order to drive away ‘undesirable’ people such as saloon owners and gamblers. The vigilantes killed at least one person, shot at others and destroyed buildings. There were widespread reports of floggings and even cases of people being tarred and feathered.
“This multi-day riot mirrored other vigilante actions in the newly established oil fields in Arkansas. The previous February, the citizens of El Dorado had formed a Law Enforcement League for the same purpose. … On Nov. 27, more than 200 masked and robed men drove through Smackover in cars, carrying signs that warned ‘gamblers and others of the lawless element’ to leave the area within 24 hours.”
The incident received nationwide attention. The New York Times reported that the Nov. 24 murder of a worker named Ed Cox had led to the events. The Arkansas Gazette reported that there also was a murder the next night of a driller named Cotton Parsons outside a bar in the Smackover Field settlement of Patagonia.
Some newspapers ran sensational reports that couldn’t be verified.
The Seattle Star said that “2,000 bootleggers, dive keepers and gamblers are aligned against the vigilantes in a skirmish, which first flared last night and raged for hours.”
The Washington Times reported that a mob of 200 “white-robed and masked men” had taken on gamblers and oil workers in “one of the most spectacular engagements ever noted in this section.”
Some newspapers reported incorrectly that as many as 75 people had been killed or wounded. The New York Times later reported that one man had been killed with four injured and five tarred and feathered.
One thing is clear. Large numbers of the so-called undesirables began leaving the area after these events.
“By Nov. 30, about 1,100 had departed by train from nearby Camden,” Griffith writes. “Although there were rumors that they were gathering in Union County to seek their revenge, Ouachita County authorities assured residents that there would be no more trouble. On Dec. 1, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Sheriff Ed Harper had returned to Camden after touring the oil fields. He found no sign of further trouble and reported that ‘the undesirable element seems to have been thoroughly cleaned out.’
“Smackover constable Hampton Lewis and local bank cashier O.B. Gordon ‘deplored the publicity given the raids, merely a repetition of events which had occurred in all new oil fields.'”
The Arkansas Gazette finally reported that the only death that could be attributed to the vigilantes was that of E.J. Wood at a settlement known as Ouachita City.
Griffith writes: “Unmasked members of the vigilance committee approached what they believed to be a gambling house, supposedly owned by Wood and Slim Sanders. Upon their arrival, Wood ran out the door. Committee members told him to halt, and he was shot when he refused. Wood was initially reported tarred and feathered, but this was later proven false. The house itself was burned down by the committee. According to recently elected sheriff J.B. Newton, all reports of a pitched battle, tarring and feathering and burned buildings were highly exaggerated; most of the gunshots had been fired into the air, and Sanders’ building had been torn down.”
The New York Times said that at least 400 of the reported 2,000 vigilantes were on the payroll of oil companies. Other sources said the size of the vigilante group was only about 200.
Griffith writes: “No one was ever arrested for the murder of E.J. Wood. The coroner’s jury met and found that he had died at the hands of persons unknown.”
Our trip along Highway 7 takes us right by one of the best places to learn more about this colorful period in south Arkansas history, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. In 1975, area civic leaders and legislators began campaigning for a museum. In 1977, the Arkansas Legislature levied a tax on oil production in Arkansas to fund construction of a museum. Two years later, the Legislature levied a tax on brine, from which bromine is extracted. Bromine is used for making pesticides, flame retardants, medicines and other products.
The project gained additional momentum in 1980 when Jack Turner of El Dorado donated 19 acres near Smackover for the museum. The Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum opened in May 1986. It was renamed the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in 1997.
The museum is operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which describes it this way: “The 25,000-square-foot exhibition center includes vintage photographs; an auditorium that features two videos; a Center of the Earth exhibit that visitors enter through a circular corridor depicting rock strata in the earth; a geologic time scale and fossil exhibit explaining how oil is formed; metal-cast and life-size roughnecks working an oil derrick; exhibits on family life in the oil fields; dozens of vintage automobile gasoline pumps and petroleum company signs; exhibits on life in the area before the boom; and exhibits on modern drilling techniques.
“A high-tech elevator takes visitors through time from a Jurassic period sea floor to the Industrial Revolution. An adjoining exhibit focuses on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 through modern times. From this exhibit, visitors can peer from a replica of the Rogerson Hotel’s second-floor veranda overlooking a re-created, boom-era street scene in Smackover. The scene, which can also be explored on the first floor, includes numerous storefronts, a jail, a newspaper office, mannequins in period dress and vintage automobiles.
“Outside, the center’s Oilfield Park features operating examples of the oil-producing technology employed from the 1920s through today. The park contains a 112-foot wooden derrick similar to the one at the original Busey No. 1 Well in El Dorado. For those wanting to see an active oil field, the museum’s staff has prepared maps for either six- or 15-mile driving tours of the Smackover Field that reveal remnants of early production such as salt flats. The field is located just north of the museum.”
As we drive north, we cross into Ouachita County, passing through the community of Elliott on our way to Camden on the Ouachita River.