Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Oil camp memories
August 21, 2002
The other day Deborah and I drove around south of the Beltone building on Andrews highway trying to find any relic of the old Superior Oil Camp houses on Superior Lane. We both remembered the camp from the 1960s she had a friend that lived on the street but not even the street exists anymore. The next morning I took the grandson down to the old oil camp down at Pegasus that the Buffalo Trails Council of the Boy Scouts of America sometimes uses. We prowled around for a while, and when it got hot, we sat in the shade of a dead arborvitae. I told him a story and told him to imagine an old man sitting talking to us, as I told the story in an old mans voice.
When we first moved to the oil fields in the 1930s we drove our horse-drawn wagon from the breaks with all we that owned, and waited on the streets of the new boomtown McCamey until Daddy got a job. We were real lucky that the driller did not mind us living near the oil rig. All the while we lived there we had an outdoor kitchen under a tarp and slept in our wagon. We cooked on our old woodstove from our old home in the breaks. We just went into the bushes to use the bathroom -- and sometimes it was real scary at night. We would carry a long stick to sweep in front of us, so we would not step on a rattlesnake. For toilet paper we used the Sears Catalog, a page at a time.
We turned our horses out to graze on the land that belonged to the rancher, and when he found out, we had to give him some of Daddy's paycheck to pay for the grass. Daddy worked from sun-up to sundown 6 days a week. We'd drive the wagon to town for groceries on Sunday, and so Momma could go to church. The town kids laughed at us, and threw rocks at us, calling us poor hillbilly rednecks. We didn't go to school that first year, living way out in the boonies like that.
We kids didn't care. Daddy made us a tricycle out of wood. The only part of it that was metal was the handlebars and the iron collar that fit around it so it would turn. We would go hang around the horses out in the pasture, and try to get up on their backs. The first month we were there we dug a cave on the side of the draw course. We worked so hard we had a three room cave, with roofs of lumber from crates that brought equipment to the well site.
A lot of the time we hiked down the draws, because they were lower and hidden and had more brush. We often pulled a little wagon that Daddy made, and had boiled potatoes, biscuits, onions, and a canteen. There was a windmill with a stock tank (which we called Lost Lake) about 4 miles down the draw and we would play in the water and picnic. The water there tasted real salty, so we couldn't drink it.
We named a lot of the places we visited. A little hill near the camp was The Big Rocky Mountain. Because we saw the draw with water in it after a rain, we called it the Mississippi River. It was exciting. We saw rattlesnakes sometimes. We felt like explorers like our Granddad when he moved to the breaks. Our oldest brother (9 years old) carried a 22 rifle, and he used Daddy's traps to try to catch and kill badgers and other animals so we could tan them and sell them in town. He would pretend to be Granddad, who we had left behind in the breaks.
I remember running from the shade of one mesquite to another, my bare feet burning on the hot sand. In those days it did not rain much -- the 1930's was a bad drought, just like the 1950's and 1970's and the 1990's. When it did rain, I loved finding the little red rainbugs, and I would go out and catch hundreds and carry them around in jars.
In the 1930s there were some bad duststorms. Mama took some of the baby's diapers and made us wear them around our face to keep us from breathing the dust. One storm was so bad that it took the paint off of the trucks that brought stuff to the well. Daddy quit working during it, and staked our wagon down so it wouldn't blow over.
All of our water was trucked in, and we had to pay for it. We could only take a bath on Saturday night. All four of the kids, ages 4 to 9, would bathe in the same metal tub with the same water. Momma would first clean the dishes with sand, only use water for a rinse- she would heat it up on wood we would gather.
When the well was finished drilling the shooter came out. He poured nitroglycerin down the hole, and then exploded it. Flames came shooting out of the hole, some 300 feet high, but that meant the job was over. When the oil first came in, there wasn't a pipeline ready built. Oil ran out, and ran down the draw. Daddy got his horses and somebody had a fresno and they dammed up the draw, and we had a lake of oil beside us. Somebody else bought the well and brought his own crew in to build the pipeline, so Daddy lost his job, and we moved to town. For the next ten years we lived in a tent in town, with an outhouse out back.
When I was a young man an oil camp was built near the site of that first well Daddy worked on, and with a strange twist of fate, I was working for that company and got a house there. The oil camp was beautiful, with neat straight streets, and big yards between houses. The oil company built tennis courts, baseball fields, basketball courts and planted a couple of Siberian elm trees for every house. My wife convinced me to go to the hills down at McCamey and dig up cedar trees and big yuccas and ceniza or barometer bush and mountain laurel. She lined the yard with rocks from the hills that fossils in them. She dug up some cactus with pretty blooms or pretty spines and made a little cactus garden.
The oil camp had running water for all the houses. It was the first time for us to ever have running water and electricity. We even had an indoor bathroom for the first time. With water coming to every house, my wife planted grass and started growing flowers. I only had to work 5 days a week, and we built a croquet field and spent evenings playing croquet. I got her a radio, too. The other men and I played 42 dominos at least once a week and our wives played bridge on some afternoons and had a quilting bee once a week. The other men and I built a golf course, too. We scraped the ground clean and hauled in sand which we soaked with oil, so there were fairways and greens made of oiled sand. We thought it was really fancy living.
The story above is an adaptation of a memoir by Bill Ingram on file at the Petroleum Museum, various chats with old-timers over the years and with influences from Elmer Keltons Honor at Daybreak. Thanks, Petroleum Museum librarian Todd Houck!