The Lucky Wildcatter

The Lucas gusher at Spindletop, January 10, 1901, Original photo by John Trost

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.

Esther Bubley | Keystone Field, Derricks and Sand Dunes | November 1945 | B/W photograph

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.”

Winkler County, TX in red

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.

Peter Hurd, Portrait of Sid Richardson, 1958, Oil on panel, 32 x 48 inches

Years later, 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.”

[i] Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 2000–2001,

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

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.”

Jesse “Jack” Mercer Couch , 1951

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

My dream 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 comes.

The 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.

Your friend,

                                         Jack Couch”

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!

Sid Richardson Hosts the President

**Researched and written by independent scholar Deborah Reed**

How 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 wife, Faye Emerson. June 30, 1946. Courtesy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas.

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.”[1] 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.[2]  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 follow.”[3]

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.[4]

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”. [5] 

President Roosevelt catching a tarpon on a Farley Boat. Barney Farley is holding the tarpon. Public Domain,

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.[6] 

USS Potomac, once Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, moored at  Oakland, California . Photo By Chris Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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.[7] 

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 it. 

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.[8] 

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.” [9]  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.[10]  By seeking information from a successful wildcatter, FDR was getting a more nuanced picture of potential production and delivery.

Richardson’s most historically important visit with President Roosevelt took place Sunday, December 14, 1941, a week after the Pearl Harbor attackA 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. 

The 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.

Roosevelt signing declaration of war against Germany on December 11, 1941 Public Domain,

[1] Burrough, Bryan, The Big Rich; The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 140.

[2] Burrough, Big Rich, 139.

[3] Burrough, Big Rich, 140.

[4] Port Aransas and Rockport were then nationally famous for the abundant tarpon and other game fish.

[5] Farley, Barney, “President Roosevelt as I Knew Him,” in Fishing Yesterday’s Gulf Coast (Corpus Christi, TX: Texas A & M Press, 2008), 3.

[6] “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Day by Day”, April 30, 1937, accessed April 17, 2019, .

[7] St Joseph Island was sometimes called St. Joe, now it is known as San Jose Island.  These are long, slender privately-owned barrier islands off Rockport.

[8] Farley, Fishing, 10.

[9] Alan Peppard, “The Islands of the Oil Kings,” Dallas Morning News, December 4, 11, and 18, 2014, Part 1.

[10] Burrough, Big Rich, 143.

[11] Burrough, Big Rich, 144.

[12] “Day by Day”, December 14, 1937.