Tom Slick – King of the Wildcatters (1883-1930)
The larger than life reality of the Hollywood-sized titans of novelists Edna Ferber and Harold Robbins, Tom Slick went from “Dry Hole Slick” to “King of the Wildcatters” and masterminded one of the state’s first great oil booms and the rise of Oklahoma into one of the great oil empires in history.
Born in western Pennsylvania, the rugged cradle of U.S. oil and gas country, Slick’s archetypal American saga began when he, his father, and his brother ventured West in 1904 to try their hand in the young petroleum industry. For nearly a decade, Slick learned the oil and gas exploration business and gained renown for his ability to beat his numerous tough competitors and lease underground mineral interests and drilling rights to enormous swaths of land everywhere from Kansas to Kentucky to Illinois to western Canada to Tryon, Oklahoma and its surrounding environs.
With “his office in his car,” or sometimes on street corners, where he later consummated a $100,000 lease deal during the Seminole Oil Field boom, no one outworked or out-visioned Slick, who also gained numerous uncomplimentary nicknames for the many drilling busts his leasing led to for numerous companies, and finally ten straight times for himself.
At this point, the Bristow Record, an area newspaper, wrote that Slick, “continues to gamble on wild cat stuff. Few men have stuck to the wildcatting longer and harder than Slick and associates. It is said he has spent $150,000 (millions of dollars in 2018 currency), mostly on dry holes.”
Mad Tom Slick
Now garnering the nickname “Mad Tom Slick” for his audacious wildcatting and prolific streak of failed spuds, he secured last ditch financing for what shaped up as one final, all encompassing shot–Cushing, in north central Oklahoma’s Payne County. Mockery of and scorn for Slick may have mounted to epic proportions, but the local newspapers did not subscribe. They lauded the daredevil’s go for broke pursuit of mineral interest leases throughout the area.
The Cushing Democrat, among others, urged its readers for their good and that of the area’s economy to lease, and said with whom they thought it best to do so: “We would repeat that we believe it to the best interests of the individuals and all that these leases be granted…And just a word of warning. If you make a lease see that the lessees name is not left blank, but that the name of Thomas B. Slick is there.”
In January 1912, he and Charles Shaffer, for whom Slick earlier worked and who still believed in his nose for oil, struck paydirt on the farm of Frank M. Wheeler. Evidencing the shrewd sagacity woven through the building of not only Oklahoma, but America, Slick leveraged his historic find to the hilt. He concealed it from the public, even cutting the Wheelers’ phone line, hired all the horse and wagon transportation in and around Cushing to prevent competitors from getting to landholders in the area to lease their land, and even secured all the town’s notary publics, needed to authorize lease agreements.
Evidencing the affectionate with which Slick was held by “small” and “great” folk alike, the Tryon Star newspaper reported, “Our old friend Tom Slick the oilman has struck it rich…Slick has been plugging away for several years and has put down several dry holes…He deserves this success and here’s hoping that it will make Tom his millions.”
Indeed, the “No. 1 Wheeler” was the discovery well for what eventually grew into the historic Drumright-Cushing oilfield, after the town of Drumright formed just south of Wheeler’s farm following Slick’s strike. The field produced for thirty-five years and cranked out 330,000 barrels a day at its zenith.
"Calling Good Luck”
Slick’s drilling record grew as hot as it had been cold. He went on an eighteen-year winning streak that not even death ended. After Cushing, he played leading roles in the similarly colossal Seminole and Oklahoma City fields of the 1920s and 1930s. He spudded numerous wells that churned out between five and ten thousand barrels of oil apiece per day. His Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas leases would rack up many millions of barrels of oil and help build the energy independence and world dominance that America long possessed.
By 1929, he possessed crude oil production of 35,000 barrels per day of crude oil production. He reigned as the largest independent oil operator in the nation. His net worth was speculated as anywhere from $35-$100,000,000, an amount perhaps into the billions in twenty-first-century dollars. His sale of his Prairie Oil and Gas Company Oklahoma holdings netted the largest sale of oil properties to that point in history by an individual.
Recalling the days of his “Dry Hole Slick” moniker and recognizing the envious aspersions that hurled his way, Slick declared near the end of his life: “If I strike oil everyone calls it Tom Slick’s luck, (but) I call it largely judgment based upon experience. Some folks don’t recognize good luck when they meet it in the middle of the road. So I have been fortunate, or lucky, whichever you call it, but I’ve also done a lot of calling good luck to bring it my way.”
Tom Slick was only 46 when he died of a stroke. He had semi-retired between 1915 and 1920 to focus his efforts on his wife Bereniece and building a family of three children, one of whom, Tom, Jr., became a respected inventor and founder of medical and technology research organizations. Biographers suggest that Tom, Sr.’s relentless drive to build, innovate, and expand produced a cumulative stress that contributed to his early passing.
Every pumpjack in the vast Oklahoma City Field stood still for one hour in silent tribute to the legendary wildcatter. One week later, in a supremely American coda to the life and times of Tom Slick, his greatest strike, his Campbell No. 1 well in the OKC Field, gushed in at over 43,000 barrels per day.
Now garnering the nickname “Mad Tom Slick” for his audacious wildcatting and prolific streak of failed spuds, he secured last ditch financing for what shaped up as one final, all encompassing shot–Cushing.
(Darned) if Slick Hadn’t Already Been There!
Tom Slick’s legendary shrewdness, creative ingenuity, and work ethic shine in this memorable recollection of a frustrated—and bested by Slick—lease man to his boss after Slick struck first oil in the Drumright-Cushing Oil Field, then proceeded to “protect his investment” from competitors pursuing rights to the same petroleum rich land rights as Slick. Recounted in Ray Miles’s award-winning biography King of the Wildcatters: The Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883-1930:
You see, sir, Slick and Shaffer roped off their well on the Wheeler farm and posted guards and nobody can get near it…I got a call yesterday at the hotel in Cushing from a friend who said they had struck oil out there. A friend of his was listening in on the party line and heard the driller call Tom Slick at the farm where he’s been boarding and said they’d hit. Well, I rushed down to the livery stable to get a rig to go out and do some leasing and (darned) if Slick hadn’t already been there and hired every rig. Not only there, but every other stable in town. They all had the barns locked and the horses out to pasture. There’s 25 rigs for hire in Cushing and he had them all for ten days at $4.50 a day apiece, so you know he really thinks he’s got something.
I went looking for a farm wagon to hire and had to walk three miles. Some other scouts had already gotten the wagons on the first farms I hit. Soon as I got one I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases – and (danged) if Slick hadn’t hired every notary in town, too.