Monday, April 23, 2012


On October 14, 1908,  an oilfield roughneck sent a real photo postcard from Petrolia, Texas to Lorman, Mississippi with this message: 

"This is a picture of the rotary well machine on which I am working.  Those are the bits marked dady [sic] and baby.  The large is the one we strdet [sic] with & the small one finishes up the hole.  P. K."  

A later note on the card says, "Pressley & his work."  Pressley may not have been able to spell very well (no pun intended) but he left us a detailed view of his job on an early rotary drilling rig in the Texas-Oklahoma oil patch.  Perhaps that is Pressley in the foreground next to the "named" drill bits.

If you look closely you will see the smaller bit, "Baby" sitting on top of the large "Da[d]dy" bit. The men have stopped work for a quick snapshot, and you can see both fatigue and pride in their poses.  We can see the photographer's shadow in the foreground, as well as hand tools and other drill bits; the rotary rig itself is clearly visible on the wooden rig floor.

In 1901, a rancher in Clay County, just below the Texas-Oklahoma border, was attempting to drill a water well but struck oil at 263 feet, thus opening the first oilfield in North Texas. A small shantytown, known as Oil City quickly grew up in the area, but in 1905, most residents moved to nearby Petrolia, which was located on the new Wichita Falls and Oklahoma Railroad. By late 1905, Petrolia boasted a hotel, bank, drugstore, barbershop, livery stable, dry-goods store, hardware store, furniture store, meat market, lumberyard, icehouse, two oilfield-supply stores, and a cotton gin.  Despite these amenities, the town was still a rough, oil boomtown, and both gambling and prostitution flourished.
In 1908, cable tool rigs still dominated the drilling process and this rotary rig was the new technology.  The drilling crew on a rotary rig was generally five in number, driller, derrick man, motor man and two floor hands.  All of them except the driller are usually referred to as roughnecks.  In this photograph perhaps the man in the background with cleaner clothes is the driller, and the photographer is the fifth crew member.

In the scan of the back of the postcard you can where Pressley left an oily thumbprint just above the Petrolia cancellation mark. Small details, like that thumbprint, the lack of hardhats, and the greasy overalls and gloves tell us a lot about a roughneck's job, but they don't convey the cold winters and blazing hot summers of the Texas-Oklahoma border; nor do they tell us of the long hours and the dangers of work on an oil rig.  In that fall of 1908, I hope P. K. went home with good money in his pocket, and to someone he could spend it on.

No man is born into the world whose work
Is not born with him; there is always work
And tools to work withal, for those who will....

~James Russell Lowell

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