On January 10, 1901, Spindletop, the
famous oil field in Beaumont, Texas, “gushered” in an era of transformation for
the state of Texas. The development of oil in Texas helped transform its once
rural economy to one spearheaded by the petroleum industry and, likewise,
steered its population from rural to urban. In 1900, only 17% of Texans lived
in urban centers while 83% of the state’s population was rural. Flash forward
to a little over a hundred years later in 2010, when we see those numbers
flipped – 83% urban vs. 17% rural.
Although Spindletop was a pivotal moment in Texas history, it was not the first discovery of oil in the Lone Star State. Historians recount how American Indians in Texas first told European explorers about oil, believing the substance to have medicinal uses. In July 1543, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition, led by Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, found themselves on the Texas coast between Sabine Pass and High Island. Moscoso reported that the group found oil floating on the surface of the water and used it to caulk their boats. Later, Lyne T. Barret drilled Texas’ first producing oil well in 1866 at Melrose in Nacogdoches County. Other wells followed, making Nacogdoches County the site of Texas’ first commercial oil field, first pipeline and first effort to refine crude.[i]
Despite not being the first oil well, Spindletop set off the
oil boom in Texas, resulting in an influx of wildcatters. A wildcatter is
someone who drills wells in areas not known to be oil fields. Wildcatters were
essentially gamblers, taking a lot of risk in hopes to strike it big. Sid
Richardson was an early – and eventually very lucky – wildcatter.
Sid Richardson learned the oil business from the ground up, beginning his boom-and-bust career in 1911 hauling pipe and working on an oil well platform near Wichita Falls, Texas, followed by short stints as an oil scout in Louisiana and Texas. As an independent trader in leases, and independent oil promoter and operator, he won and lost two sizeable fortunes in setbacks in 1921 and 1930.
When oil prices improved in 1933, Sid began wildcatting in West Texas. With $40 borrowed from his sister Annie, he began a “poorboy” operation—buying some materials on credit, borrowing others, wrangling leases, and arranging with workers to take small pay in cash and more in oil. H.A. “Red” Coulter, a driller who worked for Sid, reminisced about those early days in the Winkler County News in Kermit, Texas, “During the Depression, Sid brought the country out with nothing but nerve. Times were hard . . . the price of oil was so low, Sid had trouble getting enough money to meet his payroll . . . . and Christmas of 1933 was approaching . . . . Our grocer in Wink had cut off our supply. We appealed to Sid and he said that he had credit in Fort Worth and would send out a truckload of groceries . . . . It was the biggest Christmas any of us had ever experienced . . . even though none of us could even buy a postage stamp.”
After drilling two dry holes in Winkler County, Richardson
struck oil on the third attempt. With the income, he invested in leases in the
Keystone field of Winkler County and the Estes of Ward County. By 1935, Sid and
his nephew, Perry R. Bass had become partners. Their big strike—one of the
biggest in West Texas—came a few years later. Of the 385 wells they drilled,
only 17 were dry. By the end of 1940, Richardson had 33 producing wells in the
Keystone field, 7 in the Slaughter field, 38 in the South Ward field, and 47 in
the Scarborough field.
reflecting on his success, Sid downplayed it all with his characteristic humor
and modesty, “Luck helped me, too, every day of my life. And I’d rather be
lucky than smart, ‘cause a lot of smart people ain’t eating’ regular.”
In 1948, A&M College of Texas (now A&M University), established the “Opportunity Award.” The scholarship intended to aid “worthy young men of Texas” who were unable to afford college without financial assistance. Sid Richardson contributed regularly to the fund for several years. Although he was a wealthy business man, Sid came from a humble background much like the young men the scholarship award supported. “I had it sort of rough when I was young, and I’d like to do something for underprivileged kids.”
Many of the recipients of the scholarship fund wrote Sid letters of appreciation, including the letter on display in our current exhibition from Jesse “Jack” Mercer Couch, who graduated from A&M in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. Although Jack struggled at times academically, as even he admits “chemistry is giving me a headache,” his program director still had faith in the young student’s future. An orphan since he was two years old, Jack had dreams to one day own “a piece of ground where I place some cows and some pigs on rolling green pastures; a place with a shiny white house and a red barn and everything that will make a happy farm life.”
“Dear Mr. Richardson,
I have been informed that you are the source of my opportunity
scholarship. I want you to know that I
am deeply indebted to you. Mr. McQuillen
told me that you would be interested in knowing something about me and my
standing here at college
and plans are a piece of ground where I place some cows and some pigs on
rolling green pastures; a place with a shiny white house and a red barn and
everything that will make a happy farm life.
I want to be a service to my country and a good citizen, and I want to
be independent to a certain degree. But
I must think of the present and prepare myself.
My curricula is agricultural education which will prepare me to teach
vocational agriculture in high school. I
would like to take post graduate work for a master’s degree when the time
mid-semester grade report showed that I posted18 semester hours and 31 grade
points. Chemistry is giving me a
headache. By the end of the semester I
hope to raise my grades.
I like A. and M. College, R.O.T.C., and all that goes with it, though I
am constantly reminded that the feminine influence is lacking.
If you are not kept too busy I would enjoy hearing from you.
Later, in 1965, the Sid Richardson Foundation established the Sid Richardson Memorial Scholarship Fund. The fund provides scholarships for college and graduate education and post-secondary vocational training for children and grandchildren of eligible retirees and employees of businesses previously owned and operated by Sid Richardson and designated successor companies and organizations. Over $10 million in scholarship funds have been awarded since 1965!
**Researched and written by independent scholar Deborah Reed**
did the seventh child of an East Texas peach farmer and saloon owner become
America’s richest man and host to the President of the United States? Like any good story involving Sid Richardson,
one should settle down for a spell of swapping spit over the fence.
The first time Sid Richardson hosted a president was in the summer of 1937. President Franklin D. Roosevelt left Washington for a fishing trip on the Texas coast Friday, April 30. However, Richardson’s part of the story starts much earlier with meeting the President’s second son, Elliott.
Elliott Roosevelt and his friend, Ralph
Hitchcock left Washington DC four days after FDR’s second inauguration in March
1933. Spotted by an Associated Press reporter in Little Rock, Elliott was questioned
about his plans. He said they were driving cross country, planning on visiting
Texas, Arizona and finally Los Angeles.
The reporter asked if he planned to buy a ranch in Texas, Elliott
responded, “It takes money to buy a ranch.
I haven’t that money. I’m looking
for a job.” Meeting some oilmen at his next stop in Dallas, the wildcatters invited the two
young men to Fort Worth to see the annual Fat Stock Show.
During one of the nightly rodeos, March
11, 1933, the oilmen introduced Elliott to more independents, including Sid Richardson. As the President’s son and guest, Elliott and
Ralph were invited to several parties in conjunction with the Stock Show.
Elliott later wrote;
“I met Charles Roesser [sic], whose wells were
earning him some money, and Sid Richardson, who had none, since the holes he
was drilling seemed fated to be dry.
Both men, along with another, Clint Murchison, whom I met later, were to
show a certain interest in my career while Father was in the White House. I was vaguely aware that I was being sized up
as a prospect. A real courtship would
Elliott Roosevelt and Richardson did
become close friends. Elliott was always
willing to trade on the family name to advance himself in business and he made
a conscious effort to meet and maintain friendships with wealthy
individuals. Richardson liked the young
man and understood that helping him would be a conduit to the President’s ear
and perhaps a chance to help steer government policy in favor of the oilmen.
In October 1936, after helping Amon Carter
fundraise for the 1936 Fort Worth Frontier Exposition, Elliott went tarpon
fishing off Port Aransas where he met Barney Farley, a local fishing guide
well-known to Texas politicians and wealthy game fishermen. Barney and Richardson were old friends and it
is possible that Richardson set up the introduction. Elliott enjoyed the trip
and when Barney suggested that he invite his father down to fish, Elliott
agreed and passed along the invitation.
Barney Farley’s fishing memoir opens with
a chapter describing his time fishing with President Roosevelt. It begins;
“I was sitting on a wooden carton in my tackle store, drinking a coke with my friend Sid Richardson, when Elliott Roosevelt walked in. He came over to us and said, ‘Let’s go up to your house Barney. I have some telephone calls to make and want to be private.’ On the way to the house, Elliott broke the good news that his dad was coming to fish and Barney had been selected to be his guide”. 
FDR and his entourage left Washington by train about midnight April 27. They made stops in Greensboro and Biloxi, transferred to a car to Gulfport,then boarded another train to New Orleans. After lunch at the famous New Orleans’ eatery Antoine’s, FDR dedicated a new spillway for flood control and a charity hospital, two projects built with WPA money, then boarded the USS Moffit which took the party to Port Aransas where the smaller USS Potomac was waiting.
After a few days of fishing, by Friday, May 7, Sid Richardson hosted the President and his guests with a tour of his game preserve on St. Joseph Island to be followed with lunch at Clint Murchison’s home on Matagorda Island.
Barney Farley, FDR, Elliott and Ruth
Roosevelt went to St. Joseph on one boat.
Richardson brought the rest of the president’s party on the Saltaire. Once they arrived, we have Barney Farley’s description of an
unanticipated problem. Arriving in the
morning, they realized it was going to be difficult to get FDR onto the island
as there was no proper dock. There was
however a cattle chute and Richardson proposed wheeling the President onto
According to Barney, “The President
exploded, ‘What in the world—Sid do you mean you’re going to roll me down that
bull chute?’” To which Sid replied,
“’Why, Mr. President, you’re the biggest bull that ever went down that
chute!’” And down the chute they went.
Riding in several cars and led by
Richardson, the group took a 20-mile trip around St. Joseph to see the wildlife,
including Richardson’s longhorn cattle, buffalo and another section that he
kept for hunting deer, turkey and other game.
The shallow Cedar Bayou separated the two
islands and at low tide, one could drive a car across a sandbar between them,
and this is how Richardson led the caravan to Matagorda and the Murchison home
on roads made of crushed shell.
The group was welcomed to Clint
Murchison’s 13,000 square foot home with trays of mint juleps on the veranda. Only
one first-person account survives of this lunch. “Pa” Watson wrote in the official log, “The
party had a grand time—lots of fun.”  After lunch, some of the group hunted
jackrabbits. FDR reciprocated with dinner
for the party on the Potomac that
evening including Richardson, Murchison, Toddie Lee Wynne and John Golding
(Murchison associates), plus Mrs. Roosevelt’s friends.
From the time they spent together, FDR
liked Richardson’s folksy but knowledgeable manner. Like many Western leaders, FDR expected
another war in Europe and if the U.S. was drawn in, oil production was going to
be a huge factor in America’s ability to prosecute the war. Two weeks later, Richardson was invited to
lunch at the White House where FDR asked for Richardson’s take on the capacity
and availability of oil and refineries in Texas. The president said he didn’t trust the
information he was getting from big oil company executives. By seeking information from a successful
wildcatter, FDR was getting a more nuanced picture of potential production and
Richardson’s most historically important visit with President Roosevelt took place Sunday, December 14, 1941, a week after the Pearl Harbor attack. A few days earlier, Richardson, Perry Bass and his new wife Nancy were quail hunting on St. Joseph Island. When they returned to the house for lunch, servants told them about the attack from radio reports.
The island had no telephone service and
the nearest one was a pay phone outside a gas station just off the beach at
Rockport. That’s the number Richardson
gave people who needed to find him while he was on the island. Thursday, the White House called the pay
phone and invited Richardson to lunch on Sunday in order for the President to
ask about oil production.
owner of the gas station sent a boy in a boat to the island to deliver the
message. Richardson hurried off the
island the next day and headed to the train station in Dallas.
Over lunch on Sunday, Richardson spent an hour and twenty minutes with FDR. The President’s other appointments that day were with Secretary of War, Harold Stimson, Navy Under-Secretary James Forrestal and the Ambassador of the Soviet Union, Maxim Litvinov. The amount of time the President spent grilling Richardson about oil reserves and production is evidence of the importance he placed on this information for the upcoming conflict. The next day, Germany declared war on the United States and FDR continued to summon Richardson during the war to get updated information.
 Burrough, Bryan, The Big Rich; The Rise and Fall of the
Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 140.