During the summer of 1969, having just graduated from Northeast Louisiana State College with a degree in geology, I got a job as a mudlogger with Core Lab. I had already been on deep wells in Laurel, Mississippi and Westlaco, Texas. August found me near Mt. Pleasant, Texas, in a horse pasture, on my third wildcat of the summer.
I lived in a little one-room apartment in Lone Star, a Texas steel mill town, and worked from 7 at night until 7 in the morning, 7 days a week, until the 13,500’ Smackover test reached total depth. During this time, I witnessed a shoot-out, a stabbing and numerous fights on the rig. It was my welcome to the East Texas oil patch.
What I learned from this experience was that east Texas roughnecks were a hard-working, hard-drinking bunch. Every night, when drilling was going smoothly, they would invade my air-conditioned logging trailer to play poker and tell stories. One of the stories they told me was about Dad Joiner and the discovery of the East Texas Field. True or false, it varies somewhat from official accounts. As memory serves me, here is the story told by those wild east Texas roughnecks more than 36 years ago.
Already 66 years old, Dad Joiner was a broken-down wildcatter when he moved from Dallas to East Texas in 1926. An educated man, he’d practiced law in Alabama and had served in the legislature there. It wasn’t enough for him. Like many others, he was drawn by the lure of Oklahoma black gold and the whispered promise of riches beyond his wildest dreams. Answering the siren call, he made and lost two fortunes during his 28 years in the Sooner State.
Joiner was an oil promoter, a breed spawned by “oil fever,” a disease for which, even today, there is no known cure. Having seen the blow-outs in Cushing and heard of the 25,000 BOPD uncontained flows in Oklahoma City, investors, greedy for instant wealth, fairly threw their money at often unscrupulous oil promoters, rife with promises of easy money. Many of the early Oklahoma oil discoveries were funded by these investors, even though most never realized a penny from their investments.
Some of the reports of Dad Joiner portray him as a principled visionary, a man with divine knowledge of the infinite riches located in the subsurface of east Texas and determined to find them. The truth is quite different. Joiner went to East Texas because of one thing — cheap leases.
17 dry holes had already reached total depth in the area and most legitimate oil companies had long since abandoned east Texas for more promising regions. Taking advantage of unsubstantiated, earlier-generated reports of possible oil in the Woodbine Sandstone, Joiner used this sparse information to raise enough money to lease a large block of acreage from Daisy Bradford. With these leases, he parlayed the drilling of a wildcat well on the block.
Oil rigs were primitive affairs in the late twenties. They shut down drilling at dark, sometimes after penetrating only a few feet during the day. At night, Dad Joiner would hold court at a saloon, drinking whiskey and playing poker with the locals. He also used this time to raise money for his ongoing venture.
After drilling two dry holes, Joiner’s money was beginning to “dry up.” In the manner of all good oil promoters, both before and after him, he devised a way to raise enough money to drill a third well, and help fund his high-rolling lifestyle. What he did is now called checkerboarding.
Simply put, he subdivided his block of leases like the squares on a checkerboard. He kept the red blocks and sold the black ones. When money got tight, he would subdivide the blocks even further. Through his continued promotion, he raised enough money to drill the third well by May 1929.
In October 1930, the Daisy Bradford Number 1 struck oil and became the discovery well for the largest oil field in the world. Dad, also in the manner of many oil promoters, had over-sold the well. What does this mean? It means that he sold the interests in the well two or three times. Lawsuits against him began soon after oil was discovered in the Woodbine Sandstone at the Daisy Bradford Number 1. Supposedly, he had sold the offset leases to oilman H.L. Hunt shortly before the Daisy Bradford discovery.
The roughnecks that played poker nightly in my logging trailer told a different story. Hunt was also an oil promoter and poker player – one that would be a card playing legend, even in today's high stakes Texas hold-em era. He won Joiner’s offset leases in a poker game - at least according to my roughneck friends - and the rest is history.
Don’t mourn Dad Joiner. Even though he died a pauper, he lived one of the most interesting lives of anyone I know. And despite his lack of altruism, he inadvertently discovered a legitimate super-giant oil field, one that may ultimately produce 8 billion barrels of oil.
History is the foundation of what we know today, and it’s important to understand what happened in the past. Sometimes, however, words on the printed page are but a shadow of reality. A month in a steamy, east Texas horse pasture taught me that.