Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Sand Lappers

by Norris Chambers

I was not personally involved in this story, however, I knew some of the participatants. These events were not too uncommon in the early days of the oil boom.

   They called us those poor "Sand Lappers," and the term was appropriately applied. We lived in the sand belt in the northern end of the county. It extended for about twenty miles east and west, and about ten or twelve north and south. The area consisted of deep sand and thickly packed post oaks, encircled and intertwined with many types of briars and bushes. Here and there, settlers had cleared fields and were cultivating them. Two-rut trails served as roads, and they twisted like a corkscrew dodging the larger trees and the boundary fences. Most of the inhabitants lived on little 160 acre farms, and made their living by raising peanuts, maize and corn. They often fed the peanuts to the hogs, the maize to the chickens and the corn to the horses. Of course they used a generous amount of the corn in the creation of fine whiskey. The product was primarily consumed in the area, and as a rule the county sheriff did not bother the home distillers.

  There were only four in our family. My brother Clint was two years older than I, and Ma and Pa were probably in their early 40's. Pa had acquired several of the small farms as the owners gave up and moved out. We were the proud owners of 640 acres of the deepest, most productive and least accessible land in the sand country. We cultivated about 100 acres of peanuts and another 100 in row crops. We used the rest for pasture for our four horses and twenty or thirty cows. The crops required a lot of work. The Johnson grass and Colorado grass grew rapidly, and it was a constant battle keeping it out of the peanuts. It took a lot of hoeing and plowing.

  Ma was a typical, hard working farm lady. She was a large lady, but she was full of vitality and energy, and kept our modest house clean and our cellar well stocked. She wore her hair in a big ball on the back of her head, as many other women did then. She wore a bonnet when she went outside, and her complexion was amazingly fair and clear. An ordinary print dress was her usual attire. Of course she had some Sunday clothes, shoes and hats that she wore once a week to church. Church was about five miles through the brush at the end of a winding trail.

  Pa was in Arkansas, and came to Texas about the turn of the century. He found Ma after he got here, and they married and bought one of the little sandy farms. Clint was their second child. The first one, a girl, had died when she was very young. Clint was strong and healthy as the twenties arrived. He was eighteen. I loved Clint and tried to please him in every way. He was unpredictable and had a mean temper. Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun together. We hunted 'possums and coons with the boys on the neighboring farms, went swimming in the summertime and attended a little one room school during the winter months.

  In the Twenties times were not bad, but money was scarce. Farmers produced most of what they ate. General labor paid from fifty cents to a dollar a day.

  It was mid summer when a couple of city dudes came walking up to our house. Pa greeted them with a friendly "Howdy." The older of the two wiped his forehead and commented on the weather being a little hot. "Are you Mr. Solomon?" he asked.

  "Yep, reckon I am," Pa returned. "Won't you have a seat on the porch here. We were just about to go back to work, but I reckon a little rest out of the heat won't hurt us. Why are you out here in the rough?"

  "Well," the older stranger began, "some of the oil royalty owners in this area have entered into a contract with the Melon Oil Company to drill a well for oil. They have picked your place as the location."

  "Don't know anything about any oil wells. Reckon you must be mistaken." The fellow produced a stack of papers from a little leather case, and looked through them. "Mr. Solomon, the tract where we are going to drill is one on which you don't own the mineral rights. The owner has signed the drilling contract. We'll go out and do a little measuring and drive a stake for the location. I reckon it would be out there about the middle of that field." He pointed east toward our 30 acre peanut patch. The peanuts were coming along nicely. We had a late spring rain, and it had really boosted the growth. Pa spoke up rather sharply:

  "I reckon we don't want any strangers tramping around in our peanuts. I don't know anything about any minerals, but there won't be any oil well drilling here. Good day!"

  "But Mr. Solomon," the man tried to explain. Pa cut him off short before any explanation could be made.

  "Get off my land and spread the word to your bosses. There won't be any drilling here." Again, the stranger tried to explain that it was legal for the owners of the mineral rights to drill on our place. Again Pa told him it was out of the question, and to move on. This time the two left, after telling us that they would be back.

  The next day they were back with a third man, and this one wore a deputy's badge. Again we greeted them at the porch. This time they had arrived in a Model T, about the only automobile that could make the sharp turns and straddle the stumps in our trail to the outside world. The deputy did the talking, his dialogue going something like this:

  "Mr. Solomon, these gentlemen have a right to enter your property and do their job for Melon Oil Company. Any opposition of yours will be cause for legal action, which probably would be a court injunction prohibiting you from interfering with their access, and if necessary a peace bond. They will be required to pay you for any damages that may occur as a result of their operations."

  Pa wasn't a fool, and he knew when the chips were stacked against him. Clint and I were not that sharp, but we didn't say anything.

  "All right. Go ahead, for now." The men and the deputy started walking toward the field.

  "Just one thing," Pa continued, as they walked away. "Who is going to pay the damages and when?"

  "The company will be in touch with you later," was the reply he received. Pa didn't say anything, but muttered softly, "Yeah, probably much later."

  After a few trips to the edge of the property and a few sightings through their instrument, the two men and the deputy drove a big stake in a middle between two rows of peanuts, and left. After looking the stake over carefully, we all went back to work and forgot about it temporarily.

  A few days later we were alerted by the sound of axes coming from down our trail. We never called it a road. Four men were cutting all the trees and brush for ten feet on each side of our trail, and in places had straightened our sharp curves into short-cuts.

  "What do you think you are doing? Don't you know you're on private property?" Pa's voice was a little gruff, and not friendly at all. One of the men came forward and answered.

  "We work for the Melon Oil Company, and we're clearing a road to bring in material for a rig."

  "Nobody has talked to me about paying damages. Get out of here, now!"

  "And in case we don't?"

  "If you're not gone by time I get my gun and get back here, you'll find out." Pa turned and started walking away. We followed.

  Pa gathered up his ten gauge double barreled shotgun and his old Colt revolver. He stuffed some cartridges in his overall pockets and started out the door.

  "Be careful. Don't shoot anybody unless it's self defense," admonished Ma. Clint and I waited at the house.

  "I'll handle this," he told us. The sound of the axes had stopped. Pa was soon back and announced that they had gone.

  All was quiet until the next afternoon, when the four men came back, accompanied by the same deputy who had been there before. He addressed Pa again in his official voice, explaining that the paper he held in his hand, and which he handed to Pa, was a temporary injunction prohibiting his interference with the Melon Oil Company's operations. The deputy informed him that he was summoned to a hearing pending the granting of a permanent injunction the next week.

  "Tell the Watermelons to get out here and talk damages, or there may be other trouble," admonished Pa. The deputy didn't say anything, and the men went back to their brush clearing. Pa put us to work building a fence across the road down back of the barn. It was a good one, eight strands high and reaching across our property on that side. There was a wide gate that Pa secured with a chain and lock.

  The day before Pa was to go to the courthouse for the hearing, a couple of men came down the trail driving a wagon pulled by two great big horses. Another team trailing the wagon looked just like the team pulling it. They were mighty fine horses. I had never seen any like them. I was really impressed. The wagon carried a big scraper, called a Fresno. They stopped at the gate, and while they were surveying the situation, Pa came out of the house with his shotgun.

  "We need to get through the gate to dig a slush pit," the larger of the men said. They had both got off the wagon and walked up to the big gate.

  "And before you start plowing up my peanuts, I need to see someone about collecting some damages."

  "We don't have anything to do with that. We were sent out here to dig a slush pit, and that's what we aim to do."

  "I got two loads of buck shot, and there are two of you. I think I am well prepared for you to try."

  "You're bluffing," charged the big one. "You won't shoot."

  "You think a lot of those fine horses, don't you?" Pa pulled out the big six shooter. "You cut one wire of that fence, and I start shooting horses. When I knock out four horses, I'll have two bullets left. And if that isn't enough to finish you two bullies, my old ten gauge will do the trick. Now if you think I'm bluffing, just touch that fence. Pa aimed the pistol at the horse on the right. We knew he could place a bullet between the eyes at thirty feet, and they were a lot closer than that.

  The big man stood there for a moment, as if considering it. Then he began to turn pale.

  "O.K.," he said. "you're not bluffing. I wouldn't care that much for myself, but I couldn't stand to see my horses hurt. He motioned for his partner to get on the wagon, and they made a wide circle and went back down the trail.

  "There'll sure be hell to pay now." That was all Pa said, and we went back to the house. Pa put the shot gun back on the rack, but I noticed he still kept the pistol in his pocket.

  Clint and I had kept our neighbors well informed about the oil people and their tactics, and when we told two of our friends, boys about our age, they were infuriated. They both said they would guarantee that nobody would plow up our peanuts. They both owned Winchesters, and they indicated they would use them, if necessary. Clint and I had 22's only, but we figured if it came to a shooting war they would help some.

  The next morning Pa left bright and early for the county seat, riding old Min. About the middle of the afternoon, a car full of tough looking guys, who said they were special deputies, drove up to the gate. The driver got out and cut the wires of our gate with some sort of wire cutters. He got back in and drove up to the house. Ma was on the porch and stood facing the driver when he walked up.

  "Mam," he said, "Mr. Solomon has been arrested and is in jail for contempt of court. We are here to see that the work progresses according to the legal rights involved."

  Ma didn't say anything, and neither did we. The men spread out and stationed themselves from the gate to the peanut patch. Pretty soon the wagon with the digging equipment and the big horses arrived, and they drove out to the stake. The big man did a little measuring and drove a few stakes of his own, then they hitched the big horses to a heavy plow. It was built like a regular turning plow, but was a lot heavier. The smaller man started plowing, going from stake to stake and closing in at the center. He turned under our peanuts. Clint and I watched from a safe distance, and almost cried as we saw the fruits of our labor being destroyed. The big scraper moved the dirt and built a dam around the area. Then they plowed it again, and scraped again. By nightfall they had a pit about six or eight feet deep and fifty feet in diameter. They had gone through the top sand and into the clay beneath.

  The wagon passed by the house with the two men on the seat and two of the big horses trailing behind. Ma and Clint and I stood by the gate watching. When they had gone down the road about a hundred yards, we heard a gunshot from somewhere on the right. One of the big horses trailing the wagon fell to the ground, kicking and struggling. Then there was an explosion from the other side, and the other trailing horse fell. Another shot came from the right, and we heard the bullet hit the fresno and go whining off into the brush. Both men jumped out of the wagon and fell to the ground. The big one pulled a knife out of his pocket and crawled over to the fallen horses. He cut them loose from the wagon, then both of them jumped up into the seat and started the horses galloping down the trail. From the left came a parting shot, but apparently it was not intended for a target, for it buzzed harmlessly into the underbrush. We could hear the wagon rattling down the trail for some time. We all three looked at each other and smiled, then went back to the house.

  Ma said she was worried about Pa, but said that the jail was probably the safest place for him, since they couldn't accuse him of shooting the horses. Clint and I agreed.

  Early the following morning we took the wagon and gathered a load of dead wood. We piled it on the big horses and started a fire. We kept adding wood to the fire. The odor smelled a lot like someone was cooking barbecue. By noon they were pretty well cremated. It was about the middle of the afternoon when several wagons, loaded with lumber and heavy timber, came and stopped at our gate. Ma opened it and let them go in. The four mean looking special deputies were with them, and they proceeded to unload at the newly dug slush pit. Three autos came behind them, and a large crew of workers got out and began sawing the lumber. Another pair of them began digging a square hole about five foot in diameter where the stake had been. Clint and I stood around and watched them. One of the deputies asked Clint who had shot the horses. He said he had no idea. The deputy acted like he didn't believe him, but he didn't say anything else.

  About dark Pa came riding back from the county seat. He said that the sheriff let him out of jail, and told him he would let him know when his trial would be. He seemed to be pleased when we told him about the horses being shot. We all agreed that it was tragic that such beautiful animals had to die.

  Not much happened the next day or so. The men came and worked, and we watched. At this time of year, we had just about got our crops under way and there wasn't anything that we had to do until harvest time came. Of course there were our regular chores and the garden work, We were also milking about five old cows, and that took awhile. I was the main milker and Clint was the feeder.

  On the third day the workers began building the tower, and on the next day it was practically finished. It was a huge thing, a lot like a windmill tower but much higher. It must have been eighty or ninety feet tall. Meanwhile, machinery began to arrive on big heavy duty wagons. There was an immense boiler and a big steam engine. They mounted the engine on heavy timbers about thirty feet from the derrick and built a long wooden house over it. They installed several big wooden wheels and a massive timber they called a "walking beam" The beam extended over the floor of the rig and was mounted on a hinge that allowed it to go up and down, activated by the steam engine. Watching this construction was a real show for Clint and me. We watched and talked quite a bit with the workers. They were willing to tell us how things worked, and we were eager to learn. The workers left at night, but four more guards came and surrounded the area. Everything was peaceful, and the work progressed rapidly.

  Finally, the day came to "spud in" as the workers called it. The drill bit was a long piece of solid iron about ten inches in diameter and eight or ten feet long. The bottom was chisel shaped, and the top screwed onto a long steel stem about twenty feet long. On top of this was a thing they call the "jars." This was flexible and allowed the bit to fall free when it came down and to hit the bottom of the well. They ran water into the hole, and the bit churned up and down with the movement of the walking beam. Occasionally they would run a thing called a "slush bucket" into the hole. This tool was a large steel pipe with a valve on the bottom and an iron loop at the top, where the cable was fastened. When it hit the bottom of the hole, the valve opened and the slush entered the pipe. When they picked it up, the valve closed and it was brought to the surface and dumped into a sluice box, which ran into the pit that had been dug the first day. It was in the form of thin mud. They ran more water into the hole and lowered the bit again. They hauled the water from the creek in a special tank wagon and pumped it into a big tank not far from the floor. The steam engine really interested me. It had a fly wheel about four feet in diameter, and would run in either direction.

  One day an official from the Melon Oil Company came out to see how the drilling was progressing. Pa collared him and wanted to know when they were going to pay damages. The fellow sputtered a little and said "we'll pay off like a slot machine. Just be patient."

  "My patience is about out," Pa told him. "I don't want to see you out here again without some money. Do you understand?" He assured Pa that he understood. If one of the deputies had not come up and looked menacingly at Pa, I think there might have been trouble. But Pa left and the drilling continued.

  About a week after the drilling started, someone fired a rifle from the brush and hit the pressure gauge on the boiler. When it shattered, there was a loud hissing of steam and a big cloud of vapor as the pressure fell. This stopped the operation and the driller and his helper inspected the damaged gauge and drove away. This happened just before dark. The deputies got together and talked it over, but made no effort to go into the brush and look for the one who fired the shot. After a little discussion, they also got in a car and left. Clint and I were at the site when the shooting occurred, and Pa came out before the deputies left. They asked him if he knew who fired the shot. He said he had no idea. He was telling the truth. He didn't know. But Clint and I knew.

  Later, after Pa and Ma had retired, Clint and I got out of our bed and sneaked toward the rig. We were sleeping outside under a big tree, and it was an easy matter to walk across the peanut field to the drilling site. We didn't do any talking, but we both knew what we had to do. We carefully piled some flammable debris under the floor of the derrick and lighted it with a match. We walked softly back to our beds as the flame became larger and ignited the pine boards of the floor. In a short time there was a fire that was visible for miles as the tall structure blazed brightly in the night. People began to gather to see the sight, and soon it was like a church Sunday school picnic as all our neighbors stood around to see the big fire.

  About noon the next day a fancy car bounced over our trail and into our yard. An important looking fellow got out and came to the house. Pa greeted him and he introduced himself as Mr. Peter Melon, president of the Melon Oil Company. He didn't waste any time, but began talking at once about the mishap in our peanut field.

  "Mr. Solomon, I understand our company has had some unpleasant differences with you in the last few days. I am sorry. I am here to make things right. I will give you a check today for $1,000 damages to your property, and I am offering you one dollar an acre for an option to lease your other tracts, on which you own the mineral rights. I would like to hire you, for five dollars a day, to guard our property while we are drilling this well."

  Pa was rather shocked by this speech. So were the rest of us. Of course Pa accepted the offer. Ma even invited Mr. Melon to stay for dinner, at which time she promised a good, old fashioned home cooked meal. Mr. Melon accepted. He ate like a fattening hog. That about ends my story. The well was a gusher. It was the beginning of many that were drilled in what became the largest field in central Texas. Most of our neighbors became rich. We did, too.

  They still call us Sand Lappers - but now they add another word. They call us "Those Rich Sand Lappers!" And we don't mind!


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