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The Early 20’s in the West Texas Oil Fields

By Paul Teter

  The following episodes come to mind after a period of nearly sixty years.  The writer, Manager and operator of the local Western Union office during the hectic days of oil discovery in 1919, 1920, 1921 and to a lesser degree in years following.

Some of these towns were Burkburnet, Ranger, Eastland, Breckenridge and Desdemona.  My personal experience covers the latter two named places Breckenridge and Desdemona.

Desdemona prior to the oil discovery was known as Hogstown.  Quite a few of the messages arrived addressed Hogstown.  Then we came near having another name for this place too, that was Jake Hamon.  This gentleman, who owned many square miles of the sand and mesquite around Desdemona, built a railroad around the town to a point about a half mile distant where the Jake Hamon Railroad depot was to be located.  The station was never built while I was in Desdemona, but the railroad tracks were completed right up to the planned location of the station.

It was some thriller at the time to witness and hear the first small locomotive with tender (no cars) make its initial entry past the village of Desdemona.  I think the engineer was using more steam for the whistle than to drive the engine.  The talk about town then was that a new village and station was to be built where the tracks ended and the old temporary and makeshift construction in Desdemona would be either abandoned or burned down.

Our first telegraph office was located in the rear of a jewelry store with several lease broker cubicles located on both sides of a center isle.  Three or four plain kitchen tables, a safe, counter of 1 x 12 planking and a couple of compartmented filing cabinets.  Customers filed their messages in person; they had hand written pencil copies.  While we had a messenger, practically all incoming messages were placed in “Will Call” files for delivery in person.  Postal service was rather sporadic hence the telegraph business was unusually heavy for the size of the village.  All the places of business were of wooden construction built side by side with no more than walking space between the buildings.  Each had a porch in front with hitching rail.  The wooden floors of these porches were nearly all of different levels, so that when one walked along these store fronts, it was necessary to step up or down as each store was passed.  The street scenes of Gunsmoke and some of the other Westerns of recent dates are quite authentic in this respect.  Street brawls and fights were of almost daily occurrence in these boom towns.

I recall one day when the local sheriff brought a message to the office.  This character was a two-gun man, usually about half drunk.  The telegram he filed was a full page of closely scribbled text covering the many articles that had been stolen in a robbery.  It was practically illegible.  The counter was crowded with customers.  In order to save time and have this message transmitted as intended, I called the operator from his wire position and explained to the sheriff, Mr. “P,” that since the operator would actually transmit the telegram—if he got it corrected first hand, it would expedite matters by saving the time necessary for me to reread the message to the operator.  I thought I was tactful in the matter but something went awry. The sheriff took exception to my referring him to the operator and exclaimed or yelled out that I thought I was too good to wait on him.  He removed his belt with the two

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guns and exclaimed for all to hear, that if I ventured out in front of the counter, he would mop-up the floor with me.  There were many other incidents between the sheriff and local citizens of a similar nature.

  The sheriff’s tenure of office terminated as follows---We had quite a few of World War One veterans in town.  One of the enterprising young lawyers in town organized us into a Post of the American Legion.  We wanted to stage a little affair to raise some funds and we hand printed some posters to place in store fronts to give the affair some publicity.  The sheriff took offense at these posters, gathered them all up and destroyed them.  Our Post Commander wrote the Governor about this instance and many others where the sheriff and his aide were misusing their authority.

   The governor sent a Captain Aldridge of the Rangers to Desdemona.  A quiet investigation followed.  Captain Aldridge got a picture of the situation in short order.

He deputized several of our Post members and authorized them to go find the sheriff and his aide, arrest them, take their weapons and bring the two to his room and make sure no one was hurt.  Well, the confrontation took place in short order both from front and rear at the same time.  Captain Aldridge reviewed a few of the worst cases he had investigated and informed the two characters he was there to accept their resignations and make sure they got out of town.  This direct action within a couple of days was most effective.  These men disappeared and we experienced no further difficulty with them.

   I recall that during the winter we had an ice storm between Desdemona and Fort Worth resulting in the loss of our single wire outlet. We reluctantly accepted business subject to indefinite delay.  After the second day of no outlet for our business we must have accumulated well over one hundred telegrams, about one half of them backdated one day.  Our customers were disappointed of course as important decisions depended on telegraphed business being restored in Desdemona.  Toward evening I picked up all the telegrams, my vibroplex (bug) and caught a ride over to Gorman, Texas, a distance I recall as being about ten or twelve miles from Desdemona.  I arrived about 9pm just as our local office in Gorman was closing.  The Dallas office gave me a start on my business and we exchanged ten numbers of my files then I took ten of the Dallas files.  This exchange continued until almost daylight when I and Dallas were both clear of all our Desdemona business.  I lost no time in locking up the office, picking up the bug and all the transmitted and received telegrams and starting down the road toward Desdemona.  There wasn’t a soul in sight around Gorman.  A couple of cars passed me on the way back but didn’t even slow up.  I guess they thought my shiny bug was a gun.  There was a lot of hi-jacking around the oil fields and people were afraid of hitchhikers.  Well I arrived back in Desdemona after walking every step of the way back to Desdemona in time to open the office with my shoes full of sand and dead tired.  Our customers were real appreciative of what had been accomplished for them.  There was no overtime or extra pay involved.  I don’t think I even reported the incident to the Division office in Dallas.  To me, it was just part of the job.  I think our wire was restored during the third day of outage.

    Practically all the building construction in Desdemona fell in the shack category---plain unpainted wood sheathing on the outside with uncovered 2 x 4 studs on the

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inside.  This unfinished and temporary construction was used for most businesses as well as the one and two room living quarters.  The word residential just does not fit in describing the places where most of the citizenry lived.  Electricity was available during most periods of darkness furnished from a single steam driven generator.  Gas for cooking was obtained from local wells.  The pipes were laid on the surface of the sand and the low places would accumulate a highly volatile condensation which often would blow out through the stove burners which if no one was nearby to extinguish the flames would burn the shack down.  This was not an infrequent occurrence.  This brings us to the Fire Department which can be adequately covered in the next sentence.  A human propelled cart with a tank that appeared to hold about two or three barrels of water, a hand pump, a large coil of garden hose, and of course many volunteers and sightseers.

    I recall one instance where a couple were lamenting the total lost of their shack and contents and the man remarked that they now didn’t have a pot to -----in, and the woman added, and worse still, you don’t have a window to throw it out of.

  There were two kinds of water available in Desdemona.  It was delivered by wagon, drinking water one dollar per five gallon glass bottle and water sold by small barrels with an occasional tadpole thrown in for good measure.  I suspect the wash water was taken from some nearby creek.

    The story would hardly be complete without a few words on sanitation.  Well, with no running water or any sewer system, will simply say it was primitive, most primitive.

    The business and activity at Desdemona subsided about as fast as it built up.  New well drilling stopped and production diminished rapidly in existing wells.  Telegraph business fell off as a result and I was transferred to Dallas for about one year. 

    In the meantime the wildcat wells around Breckenridge had found oil and a bigger boom set in at Breckenridge, another inland town with no railroad, no paved streets, nor water system for sewerage facilities.  There was a rural telephone Company with a handful of subscribers and an outlet to Fort Worth and also to some nearer points.  It was necessary to call at the post office for ones mail and go to the telephone office and wait your turn to place a call.

   The countryside had some growths of mesquite and prickly pear cacti with an occasional centipede, tarantula or rattlesnake to keep one watchful or where stepped.  Jack rabbits galore.

    The pressing problem right at the outset was to find a place to live.  I finally arrived at the same solution that most all newcomers resorted to.  Purchase a 16 x 16 army tent and find a place to erect it.  A satisfactory site was located in Mr. Parkhurst’s yard up the main street a couple of blocks.  I think the rental was twenty dollars a month which included use of his outhouse and a spot in his yard to park my flivver (a model T Ford Coupe.)  The carpenter built a floor for the tent about two cement blocks above the ground.  Then boarded up the sides for a distance of about three feet then screen for another two feet up sides with a 2 x 4 plate on top

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of the sides all around except where the door was to be.  From the four corners a 2 x 4 was extended up to a peak at about a forty-five degree angle.  The army tent fit over this framework perfectly and extended down the sides well beyond the screen.  Believe it or not, **we had an electric drop light suspended from the peak and a two burner gas plate resting on a couple of upended orange crates for a stove. (*see note.)  We made out very well in this abode for over a year.  There were literally hundreds of others living in similar accommodations in and around Breckenridge at the time.  The water situation was the same as at Desdemona – barreled water from the creeks for washing and bottled water for drinking.  At the end of another year and half we saw most of the tents within the town disappear.  A water system had been constructed for the center of the town with a sewer system.  Regular houses had become available and of course we moved into one of them.  We brought a radio that had just become available in Dallas.  It was a Westinghouse and consisted of five different pieces – a box containing tuner and type 200 tube called the amplifier, a magnovox horn and transformer called the speaker.  A six-volt automobile storage battery was necessary to heat the three tubes and energize the speaker magnet and finally a "B” battery block of 40 volts for the amplifier.  There may have been a 24-volt battery for the detector or a separate tap on the 40 volt for this purpose.  The customer had to inter-connect all of these units resulting in quite a conglomeration of haywire.  Had a diary been kept of the operation of this radio for the first few months, it would have provided material for several books.  After several hours of knob tuning and resulting squeals every night and then finally the excitement of comparing results with acquaintances the next morning.

  The Telegraph office was located off Main Street about one hundred feet behind a bank and directly across the street from the side entrance to the courthouse.  We remained at that location during the busiest part of the boom which was over a year.  The space was about twenty feet wide and maybe thirty feet deep with a front door facing the courthouse for the public and a side entrance for the employees.  The furniture consisted of unpainted kitchen tables serving as desks and chairs evidently all purchased locally.  The counter was pine boards built across the space permitting lobby space of about eight by twenty feet for the customers.  Other than

the two banks and a few establishments there were no message deliveries made.  Our customers called for their telegrams in most instances and in every case brought their outgoing messages to the telegraph office.  It was not unusual every day to witness customers lined up elbow to elbow the full length of the counter writing their telegram.  Practically all of the telegrams filed were pencil or pen copies contributing somewhat to the duties of the clerks and operators.  The office hours were from 8am to 10pm but we had great difficulty in closing at 10pm.  A clerk was stationed at the front door to let customers out and try to explain to those still wanting in that we really had no more business to transmit that our open store could possibly transmit before the next morning. Being an inland town the post office had its problems which contributed to our business.  This was the era of the syndicate.  Most of the companies had the word syndicate in their name.  Some of the enticing prospectuses and promises of quick and enormous profits that were employed in fund raising solicitations would hardly pass scrutiny of the post office authorities even in those days.  This type of correspondence was channeled to the telegraph company for obvious reasons.  Our money order business was tremendous inbound and very heavy outbound also.  It was out of all proportion to the size of the office.

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  The following brief description of the telegraph equipment may interest some readers especially those of technical bent.  Bare in mind, we had only one composited circuit leased from the telephone company.  The telephone Company was using a voice circuit on the same pair of wires.  We placed a Quadraplex telegraph terminal on the composite tap of this pair of telephone wires.  Battery for this Quad as it was known was obtained from 160 no.6 dry cells located in an equipment man’s tool trunk in the office.  These batteries would furnish 240 volts of only one polarity.  In order to obtain both negative and positive polarities it was necessary to employ tandem pole changers or transmitters to reverse the polarity to ground and line in each case of polar signal reversal.  This Quadraplex afforded us a simultaneous sending and receiving circuit of first class quality for manual morse operation to Fort Worth where the circuit was repeated to Dallas.  In addition, we obtained from the quadraplex a simultaneous sending and receiving circuit of fair quality to Fort Worth where the quadraplex was terminated.  Four operators covering the four positions of this quadraplex could handle up to about a total of 150 messages and hour, i.e. transmit seventy wires and receive seventy five depending upon the length of the message. 

    Insert #1

    It was not unusual, especially in the morning and evening, to elbow with our customers.  Our counter clerks became very adept in checking and accepting messages over the counter.  Each one had to be read to make sure of legibility, the exact number of words contained in the message, the class of service desired and the total cost in every case except where the message was sent collect.  We had no charge accounts and there were no credit cards.  We had a couple of customers who would not accept one dollar bills in change.  We were told to keep those filthy one dollar bills, if we had no silver dollars for change, so we placed a slip in the cash drawer as a reminder to have silver dollars change for Mr. “G” on his next visit.  He was a daily customer as were most of the oil men. (end of insert)

**Note:  the first mention of “we” in my grandfather’s journal would appear to establish the fact that he had by then married my grandmother, Goldie May Smith.  A copy of their marriage license is dated May 8th, 1920, County of Dallas, TX. Their first daughter was born on November 13th, 1921 in the tent where they lived in Breckenridge.

Thank you for your interest in reading my grandfather’s journal.  I hope that you have enjoyed his reflections and the small bit of personal history it represents.  Barbara Hoehn.

“The Early 20’s in the West Texas Fields by Paul Teter,” may not be reproduced in any format, in full or part, for profit or presentation, by any other organization or persons.  Persons or organizations desiring to use this material, must obtain the written consent of the contributor or legal representative of the submitter.

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