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The south Arkansas oil boom — past and future

South Arkansas wasn’t prepared for the oil boom that occurred in the early 1920s, an event recounted in the previous Southern Fried blog post.

After the Busey No. 1 well struck oil on Jan. 10, 1921, one mile southwest of El Dorado, Union County became the center of activity in south Arkansas for a time.

The gusher sprayed between 3,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil up to a mile away. Speculators rushed in from across the country. The Arkansas Legislature even sent an exploratory train down from Little Rock so legislators could see what was going on (those legislative junkets have a long history, don’t they?).

In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil.

That increased to 325,000 barrels in April of that year, 578,000 barrels in May and 908,000 barrels in June. There were 900 wells in operation by 1922.

Kenneth Bridges writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture about what happened at El Dorado: “It changed from an isolated agricultural city of 4,000 residents to the oil capital of Arkansas as 22 trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

There was even regular air service from Shreveport to El Dorado.

The boom moved a bit north in the summer of 1922 with Sid Umsted’s discovery of oil near the Union County-Ouachita County line.

Don Lambert describes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture what happened next: “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 of Smackover had increased from a mere 90 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. 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.

“Unfortunately, conservation laws were absent in Arkansas and, as a result, wells were allowed to run wild until the natural gas had been vented into the atmosphere. This practice eventually ruined the giant oil field, which could be compared to a punctured aerosol can that has half of its contents remaining but no remaining interior pressure to remove it. By the early 1930s, the Smackover oil field’s production had declined dramatically, and the petroleum industry’s attention turned to new discoveries in Texas and Oklahoma. The 1923 population of 25,000 decreased to 2,500.”

Things improved some during World War II with new discoveries and a tremendous demand due to the war effort.

“Although the Smackover field is still going strong into the 21st century, it has none of the robust vigor that was so prevalent in the 1920s,” Lambert writes. “Its landscape is scarred by oil and saltwater running freely over the earth and into its streams due to the work of the oil industry.”

Arkansas Business has a story on the front page of its current issue with this headline: “Oil Field Viability Remains Mystery: First wells in Brown Dense yield fewer barrels than hoped.”

Luke Jones writes, “In the wake of the natural gas boom in north-central Arkansas, residents near the Louisiana border are hoping for a similar bonanza in the oil-rich area known as the lower Brown Dense formation. So far, however, it’s simply not clear whether there’s enough oil trapped in the carbonate mudstone to be worth the millions of dollars it costs to sink each well.

“Southwestern Energy Co. of Houston went on a leasing spree in the Brown Dense a couple of years ago, spending some $195 million to lease mineral rights on 520,000 acres across the formation. It has completed one test well so far and has a permit for a second.”

Columbia County Judge Larry Atkinson told Arkansas Business: “By the numbers I had heard, Southwestern needs 400 barrels a day to make it feasible. … They spent a lot of money and leased a lot of land, but I haven’t seen as much activity as I anticipated. I’m not saying it’s not coming, but the community expected an overflow of equipment. It hasn’t happened yet. We are waiting. We hope they haven’t decided to go anywhere else.”

It you think the predictions of El Dorado’s Richard Mason are overblown (see the previous Southern Fried blog post), consider the initial failures of the previous century.

“In 1914, oil explorers dug an unsuccessful test hole at Urbana, east of El Dorado,” Bridges writes. “A 1916 effort near the Union-Columbia county line also proved unsuccessful. Samuel S. Hunter commissioned a well some two miles east of Stephens in Ouachita County in April 1920. This well, the Hunter No. 1 well, produced some oil but never enough to sell commercially. This site was later acquired by Standard Oil Co. for exploration.”

As noted, everything changed when the Busey No. 1 gushed oil in January 1921.

A new oil boom could still happen in south Arkansas. And if it does, I can state with certainty that what’s now called the Golden Triangle is much more prepared now than it was back then.

Here’s how the website describes the scene in 1921: “People continued to pour into El Dorado. Chief of Police Hamp S. Lewis hired more policemen to cope with the rising crime rate. A full-time health officer was appointed, and two nurses and two sanitary officers were hired to help him. The city water supply had to be increased, and Harvey Couch, president of Arkansas Power & Light Co., came to the city to work out the arrangements.

“Something to do after dark was a problem, too. Men congregated on street corners in the evening to talk oil and some would break off into a quartet. … E.C. Robertson, who owned the Victory Theater in Fayetteville, came to El Dorado and opened a motion picture and vaudeville theater.

“Boxing matches were arranged, and on Feb. 3, 1921, Little Rock’s own ‘Red Herring’ and Patsy McMahon of Memphis ‘occupied the center of the sports arena.’ Jack Parsons, the ‘dean of Arkansas showmen,’ had a tent theater a block and a half from the square that presented shows nightly.

“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions. Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”

Ninety years later, much more infrastructure is in place in El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden to handle the situation should a new boom occur.

The Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission, which has nice offices in El Dorado, was established in 1939 to prevent the kind of waste seen in the 1920s.

Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, South Arkansas Community College at El Dorado and SAU-Tech at East Camden stand ready to provide higher education opportunities.

El Dorado, meanwhile, has done much in recent years to improve its quality of life with the most attractive downtown retail and entertainment area in the state, a first-class conference center, a new high school and more.

The downtown square in Magnolia also rates among the better downtowns in Arkansas.

El Dorado public relations executive Don Hale wrote earlier this year: “What we found in El Dorado was that our award-winning downtown was one thing that made us unique. It separates us from many other communities. El Dorado is fortunate to have one of the best downtowns in the South. Tree-lined streets surround a stately courthouse with retail boutiques and restaurants in a pedestrian-friendly setting ideal for shopping or enjoying a live performance at one of our weekend events.

“It’s the same setting that retail developers in Branson and other destinations have attempted to re-create with ‘lifestyle centers’ that lure tourists, shoppers and overnight guests to their destination. But even the most vibrant downtown is not a destination that can provide several hundred new jobs and have a major economic impact.

“We were asked, ‘What would tourists drive to El Dorado to get that they cannot get closer to home?’ This question challenged us to create an attraction that would draw visitors from 300 to 400 miles away. A plan that centers on the downtown was designed to develop an entertainment district featuring performing arts theaters, musical venues, festivals and events — a bold step for even the most imaginative of communities.

“The city’s existing annual events — for example, MusicFest, the South Arkansas Mayhaw Festival, the Boomtown Classic — serve as the basis for future events. More recently, El Dorado launched the first Southern Food & Wine Festival in our new conference center adjacent to downtown.

“Building on a deeply rooted artistic community, El Dorado will become the Festival City with the theme or tagline of ‘It’s Showtime!’ This new brand will not be launched with an extravagant marketing campaign. Instead, the community will work in the coming years to earn this distinction. Plans are to host an event every month along with year-round activities.”

Bring on the new oil boom.

I think south Arkansas is ready.

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