Cushing — Oklahoma's Wild Oil Boom Town
Colorized rendering of the historic early-twentieth century Cushing, Oklahoma oil field.
Cushing, Oklahoma is now the largest oil storage facility in the world and is the price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate crude on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Cushing contains 13% of total American oil storage capacity. The Payne County town of around 8,000 people is also known as the pipeline crossroads of the world, as so many large transmission lines originate and terminate there. Cushing looms large in oil and gas history. Historians Odie B. Faulk and William D. Welge crafted the vivid depiction of it which follows as an early, multi-county Oklahoma oil boom town. Excerpted from their splendid book Oklahoma: A Rich Heritage, it brings to life the great early-twentieth century Cushing-Drumright Oil Field Strike. The story will also appear in Volume 2 of The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People (World War I – Present).
The next major strike occurred in 1912 at the Cushing Field, because of the determination of several men who believed oil was there. Chief among them was Tom Slick, a Pennsylvanian who learned the oil business in his home state and who boasted that he could smell oil-laden sands before a drill bit touched the earth. For several months he suffered disappointment as he tried to drill a producing well, but finally he and his backers tapped what eventually would prove to be the second largest field in Oklahoma’s history.
Cushing Oil Field mastermind and pioneer Tom Slick, whose relentless determination and refusal to give up in the face of repeated failure and disappointment played huge in the building of Oklahoma. Slick, known as the “King of the Wildcatters,” also stood in the front rank of Seminole and Oklahoma City Oil Field drillers and producers.
In the weeks and months that followed Tom Slick’s initial discovery, Cushing experienced what other towns would come to know when oil was found nearby. Before Slick’s success, Cushing had been a dusty, sleeping village. A few businessmen along the main street kept their doors open by extending liberal credit to farmers who hoped to pay their bills at harvest time. When crops failed, so did some businesses. There was not a single telephone, electric line, paved street, or automobile in town.
Oil brought dramatic and almost immediate change. Telephone lines were quickly strung, while the noise and fumes from automobiles could soon be heard along dusty streets, scaring horses and starting grass fires. All over town new businesses sprang into existence: storage yards for pipe and the assorted machinery needed to drill oil wells, lumber yards filled with massive derrick timbers, wagons used to transport all this to sites in the countryside, restaurants and hotels catering to the mass of humanity bustling about town, and supply houses carrying a wide assortment of merchandise at inflated prices. Other businesses opened for the sole purpose of separating the newly wealthy from their money: automobile dealerships, jewelry stores carrying a wide assortment of glittering gewgaws, and gift shops carrying “presents” for loved ones left behind. All the businessmen seemed to be doubling their prices almost every hour.
Cimarron River bed operations in the great Cushing Oil Field, Creek County, 1915, looking southwest.
Because of the rapid growth, there was confusion, disorder, and uneven progress. For example, at the height of the boom, Cushing still had no sewer system, nor did it have suitable housing, and food often was in short supply. Housing was in such demand that enterprising pool hall owners allowed men to sleep on and beneath billiard tables from midnight to sunup for fifty cents (even chairs were rented for sleeping space). More enterprising men erected shanties from packing crates, cardboard, tree limbs, or anything else available on any plot of ground they could defend.
Conditions were made worse by the horde of tramps, vagrants, and hangers-on who swarmed into Cushing, as they did to every boomtown in Oklahoma. Unable to find work, they stood along the streets, sleeping in alleys and begging for food. There were also camp followers of a less desirable nature: gamblers who kept games going at all hours, women with no visible means of support, and whiskey peddlers. One writer referred to this class as “vultures, harpies, and the riffraff of the country…” Crime became rampant, as did disease spread by cramped living conditions, poor food, impure water, and lack of proper sanitation. Meningitis became a dreaded killer, and typhoid was common.
Bill Welge, co-author of Oklahoma: A Rich Heritage, and longtime Director of the Office of American Indian Culture and Preservation at the Oklahoma Historical Society and Director of the Research Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society
Cushing was no sober community. It was boisterous and alive, its streets a jumble of humanity. Restaurants, hotels, stores, barbershops, illegal saloons, all brightly lighted, kept open house on both sides of the main street late into the night, while down at the freight yards men could be heard swearing as they sweated to load wagon after wagon with pipe or steam boilers or lumber or wire. The “roughnecks,” as oilfield workers were known, arrived at the end of their shift of work and began to spend. And spend they did, for their wages ranged from six to fifteen dollars a day. Oklahoma was officially dry, but in the first week of the boom whiskey peddlers seemed to be on every corner doing a brisk business. Theirs was a raw, potent product that seared the throat, warmed the stomach, and inflamed the head. One teetotaler commented in disgust, “Every bottle sold seemed to contain a thousand curse words, several arguments, and at least one fist fight.”
The countryside around Cushing changed as much as the city during the oil boom. Dirt roads suddenly were crowded with flashy automobiles carrying agents offering fistfuls of money for drilling rights. Farmers and their sons, to whom $100 cash had once seemed a fortune, suddenly were exposed to fast-talking city slickers from Houston or Chicago offering thousands of dollars in return for a signature on a lease. Once the lease was signed, heavy wagons carrying steel, pipe, and timber cut deep ruts into roads that became impassable when it rained, while makeshift roads were torn across once-barren pastures. Such was life in and around a booming Oklahoma oil town.
The mammoth Cushing oil storage facility of today.