The Mysterious Stranger

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In 1908 a mysterious stranger arrived at the on the train to the frontier town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Photo: Santa Fe Depot in Ponca City in 1912

"The Mysterious Stranger" - a work in progress

by Hugh Pickens

The Stranger Arrives

Picture a frontier town over one hundred years ago, just one year after the territory where it is located becomes a state. The town's population is just over 2,500. The town is only 15 years old and there are only a few brick buildings on main street which is still unpaved and mainly has wooden buildings: bars, saloons, dry goods stores, with wooden sidewalks in front of them. Horses are tied to hitching posts outside most of the stores.

A mysterious stranger arrives to town on the train with nothing more than a cloth bag for his clothes and a letter of introduction to the owners of the largest ranch in the county. The stranger is 35 years old and says he is a lawyer from back east and that he has come to the town to prospect for gold - black gold. The townspeople treat him with kindness and generosity and even though he doesn't have much money he is able to convince the owner of a local hotel to let him have a room and take meals on credit.

The Ranch

In a few days the stranger travels the largest ranch in the county - a cattle ranch with over 100,000 of land - and there he presents his letter of introduction to the owner who takes him around to show him the ranch operation. The stranger tramps the land around the ranch studying the outcroppings of rocks and walks for miles over the broad and rolling prairie carefully inspecting the formations.

Here's what the stranger wrote in a letter:

"George L. Miller was showing me around the Ranch one day and we rode up a hill to see the cemetery of the Ponca Indians. The Indians placed their dead on wicker platforms above the ground. I noticed by the outcropping of the rock on the hill that the hill was not only a topographical high but also a geological high. A little further investigation showed it to be a perfect geological dome."

Convinced that the Indian cemetery was a distinct oil formation, the stranger told the ranch owner he would agree to drill a test well if he would give him a lease on the ranch lands and help him obtain the necessary leases from the Native American tribe.

Drilling the Wells

The first well was drilled near the ranch headquarters under the most adverse conditions. There were no heavy draft teams in the area, nothing but light horses and cow ponies. Lumbering teams of oxen with their heavy yokes had to be used to haul rig timbers, tools, boilers, and casings frosm the railroad station in Bliss t the well location. The nearest supply house was 125 miles away in Tulsa. The well was drilled with old Manila cable to a depth of 2,700 feet but is abandoned as a non-producer.

After this failure, a location is made for a second well about five miles from the first on a piece of land called the Iron Thunder Tract under conditions even worse than the first. At a depth of 500 feet they strike gas in spring of 1910. A gas line is laid from the well to the ranch to provide fuel tin handling the crops grown on the land. But still no black gold.

A third well is drilled 1800 feet from the second and it struck gas too. In fact, eight wells are drilled and not one produce petroleum.

The prospecting is done against the advice of experienced oil men in the rich Mid-Continent field further east in Osage County who hold to the theory that there are no profitable fields west of the Red Bed formation which begins after passing westward across the Arkansas River.

But the stranger in undeterred. He is running out of money but he decides not to give up and drills one last well - his ninth - but after weeks in the field, that well comes up dry too.

The Stranger Departs

The stranger packs up his bags and leaves town on the train that had brought him three years earlier. He returns east where he practices law in his hometown on Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He is very sucesssful as a lawyer and he enters politics and in 1936 is elected Governor of Pennsylvania. Two years later he is appointed to the United States Spreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt fullfilling the dream that his father had had for him.

Years later after he retires from the Supremem he sits down to write his memoirs and devotes a chapter to the sleepy frontier town where he had gone as a young man in search of adventure and riches and remembers the frontier town wistfully and the generous way he had been treated.

What the Town Missed

And the sleepy little town. Well it stayed a sleepy litle town of about 2,500 - about the size of Newkirk. There was never any Pioneer Woman statue, no Marland Mansion, no Marland Grand Home, no hospital, no children's home. But most important there was never any Marland Refinery to provide employment for tens of thusands of men for almost a hundred years.

Ten years after the stranger leaves town another group of wildcatters somes through Kay County and they drill a well just a few hundred yards away from Willie-Cries and strike oil. But by now time has passed Ponca City by. Instead of building a refinry in Ponca City, the wildcatters build a pipeline down to the refinery in Cushing, Oklahoma where the oil can be refined and shipped to wholesalers across the country.

Extra Material

In 1908 E. W. Marland came to Oklahoma after losing his fortune in the Pennsylvania oil fields in the panic of 1907 and by 1920 had reestablished himself and started the Marland Oil Company in Ponca City with a fortune estimated at $85 million (roughly $910 million in modern dollars). Marland was a visionary and not only pioneered the use of geophysical techniques in the oil industry but was years ahead of his time as an employer providing housing, loans, medical care, and other benefits for the thousands of employees who worked at his refineries and pipelines. But misfortune would strike Marland and in 1928 his oil empire was destroyed by J.P. Morgan's banking interests. Marland was forced out of the oil company he had founded when bankers merged it with Continental Oil Company and renamed the company Conoco.
Willie Cries was the first successful oil well drilled by EW Marland in 1911. Photo: Wikipedia
Marland founded the 101 Ranch Oil Company, located on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch, and drilled his first successful oil well at Willie Cries on land which he leased in 1911 from the Ponca Tribe Photo: Wikipedia
By early 1921 Marland consolidated all of his oil operations under the auspices of the Marland Oil Company. Headquartered in Ponca City, where its major refining facility was located, the firm continued its phenomenal growth pattern by absorbing numerous small oil companies. Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society
EW Marland pioneered the use of geological techniques in the oil industry and was years ahead of his time as an employer providing housing, loans, medical care, and other benefits for thousands of employees who worked at his refineries and pipelines but Marland lost everything to the powerful JP Morgan banking interests - even losing his name on the oil company that he founded in Ponca City.

Even in the world we live in, there was nothing pre-ordained about building a refinery in Ponca City. It would have made just as much sense to build his refinery in Tonkawa or in Bliss next to the 101 Ranch. In fact, the citizens of Bliss officially changed the name of their city to Marland at least partially in the hope that Marland would locate his headquarters there close to his wells on the 101 Ranch.

But Marland never forgot the friendliness and generosity that had first been shown him when he arrived in Ponca City and he built his headquarters and the Marland Refinery in Ponca City where it has provided employement and benefits for tens of thousands of employees over the past 94 years.

Marland didn't believe in paying his employees a living wage but a saving wage that would allow them to save enough to own their own homes. He started a Bank that made it possible for his employees to buy a house. He gifted the city with recreational facilities, he helped build the hospital, he made donations to churches and civic organizations.

Marland wasn't the only one to strike it rich in North-Central Oklahoma. Dozens of men made their fortunes from the oil in Kay County.

But most of them left, went back home to the east to live off their riches. Marland was determined to make his home in the city that had treated him so well. From a sleepy frontier town of 2,500 when he arrived, Ponca City had swelled to a city ten times that large and Marland had a huge part in bringing benefits to the citizens of the community.

Marland put peope first. Marland created a culture with a work ethic at the refinery where every man did his job and tried to figure out how to make the refinery run better. When Conoco took over the Marland refinery in 1928, the Marland culture survived, some say right down to this day.