The “Roaring Ranger” Oil Field of Broken Dreams

A few months back, Brian posted a piece about Rex Beach and the Ranger, Texas oil boom. This reminded me of just how big the Ranger oil boom was and how during Howard’s early years Dr. Howard was looking to become rich in just such boom town.

From the time Howard was born until 1919, his small nomadic family moved from town to town, often settling in a boom town and soon moving on.  Then, for some reason, Dr. Howard decided to settle permanently in Cross Plains — despite the fact there was huge oil find in nearby Ranger. Perhaps he thought Cross Plains would boom as well, but as fate would have it, the tiny town remained largely immune to change (although there was a brief, oil-related boom in the 1920s). Given his personal experience, it is a well know fact that Howard was no fan of boom towns and the devastation they caused when they went bust. He often wrote on this topic in his correspondence and here are a few excerpts from his letters to Argosy All-Story Weekly and H. P. Lovecraft:

My family has been prone to follow booms, and I have lived in oil boom towns, land boom towns, railroad boom towns, and have seen life in some of its crudest and most elemental forms.

To Argosy All-Story Weekly, ca. Spring 1929.

The oil booms came along and ruined what agriculture was left. Now this country is poverty ridden and worn out. The old rocky, clayey farms won’t produce anything, what with the drouths, and the oil has just about played out or else the big companies have bought out the smaller ones and shut down the works, to cut expense or to freeze somebody out. But now this country is drifting back to cattle and sheep and goats again. It’s still a great country it just needs a little intelligence. All over the older settled parts of Texas, the trend is away from agriculture and back toward stock-raising.

[…]

I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.

To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. October 1930.

You’re right about oil booms — they bring a lot of money into the country and take more out, as well as ruining the country for other purposes. This might offend men in the oil business, but it’s the truth that I’ve seen more young people sent to the Devil through the debauching effects of an oil boom than all the other reasons put together. I know; I was a kid in a boom town myself. The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know — whether he — or she — practice what they know or not. Glamor and filth! That’s an oil boom. When I was a kid I worked in the tailoring business just as one terrific boom was dwindling out, and harlots used to give me dresses to be cleaned — sometimes they’d be in a mess from the wearer having been drunk and in the gutter. Beautiful silk and lace, delicate of texture and workmanship, but disgustingly soiled — such dresses always symbolized boom days and nights, to me — shimmering, tantalizing, alluring things, bright as dreams, but stained with nameless filth.

To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1930.

On October 21, 1917, the “Roaring Ranger” oil field was discovered in Eastland County, Texas. On that day 93 years ago, the McClesky No. 1 well gushed, marking the onset of the oil boom in Ranger, Texas. The McClesky No. 1 well pumped out 1,700 barrels of oil daily and started the rush to Ranger that brought about the development of one of the greatest oil fields in the country. By 1919, the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company had 22 oil wells being drilled and there were also eight refineries open or under construction. That year more freight was unloaded in Ranger by the Texas & Pacific Railroad than at any other location upon its line, including the larger stations of New Orleans, Fort Worth and Dallas.

The town was soon peppered with oil derricks, gambling houses and brothels, and was home to an estimated 30,000 people at its peak. Indeed, the town had ballooned from a mere 2,000 souls as oilmen, roughnecks, gamblers, prostitutes, thieves and thugs streamed into the town by the thousands via wagons, automobiles and trains.  Among these thousands of fortune seekers were boxing promoter George L. (Tex) Rickard, heavyweight champion Jess Willard and novelist Rex Beach, who set his novel Flowing Gold in Ranger. But the rags-to-riches boom in Ranger was short lived, coming to an end in 1921.

This is how an article in one Texas newspaper heralded the boom:

The World’s Biggest Boom … The wildest, roaringest boom of them all – Ranger! … Truly, California in 1849, the Klondike, Butte, Spindle top — none of the other great riches, whether produced by gold, silver, copper, or petroleum equaled Ranger.

In 1917, the world was at war and the oil pumped from deep beneath Ranger and surrounding areas was the black gold that ran the Allied war machine. Desperately needed fuel flowed from West Texas to the frontlines, fueling the warships, planes, tanks, trucks and locomotives that propelled America and its European allies to victory.

But all was not well during the boom. After a long drought finally broke, Ranger’s dirt streets quickly turned into a morass. Unsanitary and crowded conditions caused an outbreak of typhoid fever and a fire in September of 1920 destroyed two downtown blocks, causing over $1,000,000 in damage.

Additionally, the human parasites that had descended on the city took their toll as violence, gambling and prostitution flourished in the booming town. Enter the Texas Rangers who raided gaming halls, smashed drinking establishments and rounded up a diverse group of miscreants and felons. Once the jails were filled to overflowing, the Rangers handcuffed their prisoners to telephone poles.  The Texas Rangers were no strangers to the town – years earlier, the city actually sprang up around an old Texas Ranger camp, hence the name Ranger.

By 1921 the boom was tapering off and the locals were hoping for new oil discoveries, but a round of bank collapses dashed all hopes. The 1930 census results put the population of Ranger at just 6,208.

After the bust, the unrest and discontentment provided a strong base for the Ku Klux Klan, who quickly ramped up their recruitment effort and seized the opportunity to spread their message of hate and intolerance.  To their credit, the citizens of Ranger and Eastland County soon organized against them and sought to minimize their impact, denouncing the Klan for boycotting Catholic and minority businesses. The  Klan next tried to make inroads into county politics, but after its defeat in the elections of 1924, the Klan declined rapidly and by 1930 had virtually disappeared from the area.

From a population of over 30,000 at the peak of the oil boom, the number of townspeople has dwindled over the years to less than 2,000 today.

So from sleepy small town to burgeoning boom city and back again – this was a fact of life for many residents of the Lone Star State during those heady years of the oil boom of the early years of twentieth century Texas. Many a fortune was made overnight and gone just as fast, leaving behind dry holes and broken dreams.

Below are scans of a promotional souvenir postcard folder produced by the City of Ranger Chamber of Commerce painting a sunny picture for the future of Ranger.