“The big oil companies are strangling the very life out of the industry.”

Even though Howard lived in the 20th century Texas, he wasn’t too far removed from the violence and greed of the Old West. In Howard’s lifetime, it wasn’t gold or cattle, but rather oil — black gold — that seemed to bring out the worst in people, as Howard often observed:

Well, the oil war rages. Doubtless you’ve heard some echoes of it, on the East Coast. The Oklahoma City Oil Field is under martial law, and so is the great East Texas field. A thousand men of the National Guard are patrolling East Texas and they have Hickman and his Rangers there — to protect the National Guard, I reckon. Ordinarily I am rabidly opposed to any sort of martial law, but this time I believe it’s a good thing. The big oil companies are strangling the very life out of the industry.

I haven’t visited the East Texas field but I hear it’s a hummer. Several former law-officers of this section of the country served there for awhile in one capacity or another. But there seemed to be considerable prejudice there against West Texans, especially as officers, and this was probably increased when the former marshal of this town killed a man at Gladewater in a raid. Shortly afterwards an East Texas officer ran amuck and killed a Ranger, narrowly missing several other officers, before he himself was killed by one of them.

— Letter from Howard to Lovecraft, ca. August 1931

Texas Rangers and Oil Boom towns were often subjects of Howard’s correspondence — he admired the former and detested the latter. What both had in common were violence and danger, with one being the cause and the other being the solution. Such was the case of Texas Ranger Tom Hickman and the East Texas Oil Field.

Sleepy East Texas was forever changed with the discovery of oil in 1930 and 1931. After suffering through the early years of the Great Depression, luck and wealth suddenly arrived, bringing national attention to the region.

In early 1929, 70-year-old wildcatter Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner drilled two dry holes south of Kilgore. Undeterred by his initial failure, Joiner spudded a third hole in May on the Daisy Bradford farm in Rusk County. But it was not until October 3, 1930 that a production test was done, resulting in a gusher – the discovery well, Daisy Bradford No. 3.

Within a few months, oil fever came in with a rush, or rather a gush when a production test well owned by Bateman Oil Company (the Lou Della Crim well), south of Kilgore blew on December 17, 1930, flowing 22,000 barrels a day.

The well was only nine miles from Daisy Bradford No. 3, yet no one was aware that the two wells were part of what was then a geological phenomenon – an incredible deposit of oil in the Woodbine formation had “pinched out” as it tilted upward against the Sabine Uplift creating the massive East Texas Oil Field.

The initial Oil Boom was completed January 26, 1931 when the J.K. Lathrop lease in Gregg County hit black gold at 3,587 feet, producing 18,000 barrels daily. The Lathrop well was situated on land assembled by B.A. Skipper of Longview and taken over by the Arkansas Fuel Oil Company.

Production from the East Texas Oil Field skyrocketed from seven wells every other week, to seven wells daily, to a whopping 100 wells put into production each day. The first oil pumped out sold for $1.10 a barrel, but prices soon sank to 15 cents a barrel as supply flooded the market and drilling activity spread to the surrounding counties of  Upshur, Smith and Cherokee.

With hundreds of wells pumping around the clock, production swelled to more than 1,000,000 barrels a day. In August 1931, the situation was getting out of control — law and order needed to be restored to keep the peace between roughnecks, lease hounds, oil speculators and camp followers (gamblers, prostitutes, scam artists and ne’er-do-wells).

The root cause of the conflicts were the well operators, who were over-pumping – pulling so much oil out of the ground so fast it caused a glut and prices to  plummet drastically. Also, the speed at which the oil was coming out was  damaging the underground rock formations and potentially causing a collapse of the whole oil field area. Finally, the state had to resort to “proration” – limiting the supply of oil that could be pumped daily from each well. Of course, no one paid any attention to this regulation and pumped even more, given the small amount they were getting paid per barrel (as little as 2 cents).

Tempers flared and fuses were short. People were fighting in the streets, murders and shootouts were commonplace place as the populous became more desperate. The whole, complicated morass known as “The Oil Wars” played out on the once peaceful East Texas landscape.

On August 16, 1931, Governor Ross Sterling signed a Proclamation of Martial Law in East Texas. Captain Tom Hickman and his company of Texas Rangers, fresh from helping resolve the “Red River Bridge War” on the Texas-Oklahoma border, were enlisted on August 17, 1931 by Sterling to restore order in the East Texas Oil Field — he also sent Texas National Guard troops as well. Needless to say, both contingents of peacekeepers had their work cut out for them.

Thomas Rufus Hickman was born in northwest Cooke County, Texas on Feburary 12, 1886. According to Hickman himself, his given name and middle name came from two people who visited his father’s farm the day he was born — a white man named Tom and an Indian named Rufus. In 1907, Hickman graduating from Gainesville Business College and shortly after joined the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. After leaving the show, he was appointed deputy sheriff of Cooke County. Hickman was chosen to be a private in Company B the Texas Rangers by  Governor William Pettus Hobby on June 16, 1919. He quickly rose to the rank of sergeant and by the end of 1920 he was Captain of Emergency Company #2. In 1922 Hickman became Captain of Company B.

Hickman worked on many famous cases, most notably the Santa Claus Bank Robbery that occurred in Cisco in December of 1927. He worked alongside other renowned Texas Rangers like Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas and Frank Hamer. Hickman also projected a perfect image of  a Texas Ranger: he stood six feet tall, ramrod straight, and knew how to look good sitting on a horse. He dressed sharply and women and the press found him to be a fine example of what a man is supposed to be. Hickman was also an excellent marksman, but was a peacekeeper at heart — often saying: “I always tried to talk my way out of a situation instead of having to shoot my way out.”

When Hickman arrived in the East Texas Oil Field, he, along with his men and the National Guard shut-in all of the 1,650 oil wells in the area and sought to enforce the production proration and restore peace in the area. Of course, disgruntled operators did not like the restrictions and sought to pump in excess of their limit and smuggle that extra oil out of state to neighboring Oklahoma and Louisiana. Hickman and his men put a halt to these illegal hauls by stopping the dishonest railroad men, pipeliners and truckers who were aiding and abetting the operators’ actions.

Ultimately, the crisis blew up into a political nightmare for Sterling who was at odds with the oil companies, big and small over the proration and martial law. A court overturned Sterling’s Martial Law and the operators ignored the proration and the Texas Rangers and National Guard were forbidden to enforce the limits. Finally, weary of fighting a losing battle, the Rangers and Troops left. The initial drama of martial law and proration had soured the public on Sterling and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulated oil operations. Eventually the whole mess was resolved, but not without getting the federal goverment involved in 1933.

As for Hickman, he was fired from the Texas Rangers by Governor James V. Allred in 1935 after a heated disagreement over Hickman’s alleged involvement with an illegal Arlington gambling operation. He worked for the Gulf Oil Company as head of  security for its pipeline division in the 1940s. Hickman returned to law enforcement in 1957 when Governor Alan Shivers appointed him to the Texas Department of Public Safety Commission for a six-year term. He became Chairman of the Commission in 1961 and served in that capacity until his death in January of 1962. Hickman is buried in his hometown of Gainesville.