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Story of Arkansas's Oil Boom
Unfolds at Smackover Museum
By Jay Harrod
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
While the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources -- the 46th park acquired by the state parks system -- primarily focuses on Arkansas's oil boom of the 1920s, the center also interprets the history of the resource, from the beginning of its creation eons ago through modern times. The museum, which has won numerous awards for its exhibits and interpretive programs, is located on Ark. 7 two miles south of Smackover and about 10 miles north of El Dorado. For more information, phone (870) 725-2877 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com or www.cei.net/~amnr.
The changes brought about by the blowing of the Busey oil well on Jan. 10, 1921, were arguably as dramatic as the Busey's gusty fury that cold and dreary day in El Dorado.
The late Robert Vernon, who was 10 at the time, said during a 1987 interview that he was in a second-floor classroom when the well blew. Peering out a window, one of Vernon's classmates noticed a dark cloud west of town, "and told the teacher, 'Oh there's a big storm a coming.'"
But this was a storm of different sorts. Oil was spewing higher than the 112-foot derrick and raining down on people and property more than two miles away, according to other eyewitnesses.
Within mere weeks, the population of El Dorado, a town of about 4,000 people with only a few cafes and hotels, exploded to more than 20,000. One year later, the population had soared to 35,000. Two rail lines, the Missouri Pacific and the Rock Island, which had primarily served to haul timber out of the area were now bringing into it scores of prospectors, engineers, drillers, mechanics, merchants and mule team drivers.
By the end of October 1921 some 460 oil-producing wells had been drilled and 10 million barrels taken from an area of about 5,000 acres. To accommodate the army of workers, hotels charged patrons to sleep in lobbies and fast-acting entrepreneurs erected tents and shacks on empty lots.
According to Vernon, those staying at "Cot City" were charged $1 per night. "There were people sleeping by the shifts," he said. "Eight hours was all that they would let you stay," and "nearly every home[owner] that had a spare room...put a cot or a bed in there and they were leased out."
Feeding the masses was difficult and profitable. Between the city's unpaved and oil-soaked main roads and sidewalks were strips of land about 6 feet wide that were leased to food vendors. On "Hamburger Row," as the area was known, packed patrons stood on narrow decks and ate burgers, soup, chili and other foods.
As with California's Gold Rush, Arkansas's oil boom, which was primarily focused around Union and Ouachita counties in the south-central portion of the state, attracted a myriad of people. Dangerous work in the oil fields meant jobs were often filled by rowdy "roughnecks." Not long after the discovery of oil, houses of prostitution sprang up and gamblers and bootleggers arrived to satisfy the desires of these often raucous men. And pickpockets and robbers were attracted to the abundance of newfound and flaunted wealth.
A similar story was played out at nearby Smackover. Discovery of oil in 1922 turned the quiet town of 100 residents into a boisterous boomtown of 20,000. For five months in 1925 Smackover's oil wells led the nation in production.
Tents and shacks were temporary fixtures. New wealth soon enabled a building spree in El Dorado and Smackover. Among El Dorado's many impressive 1920s architectural sights -- all well preserved today -- are the El Dorado City Hall, the First Presbyterian Church, the First Baptist Church and the eight-story Lion Oil-Exchange Bank Building. The Lion Oil-Exchange Building was completed in 1927 and remained for decades the tallest building in the area.
In 1928, a new Union County Courthouse was completed in El Dorado where its 1848 predecessor had stood -- on the highest ground in Arkansas's largest county. As testament to the county's prosperity, the exterior was dressed with limestone, 40 Ionic columns and other Neo-classic design features.
The boom -- and wealth -- was relatively short-lived. Millions of barrels of oil were wasted because of overdrilling, spectacular fires and inefficient extraction, storage and transportation methods. In many ways, the oil was drained as wantonly as the timber that once covered the same country had been cut in preceding decades.
When a gusher came in, owners frantic for quick money often stored the oil in earthen pits, which allowed much of it to seep back into the ground and most of the valuable gases to evaporate. Early on in the Arkansas boom, there were no pipelines and crude oil was hauled on trucks to railroad tank cars and on to refineries in other states.
Despite improved drilling techniques and conservation efforts, oil prices were lower than the cost of production during the Depression. But, in 1937, a second boom -- spurred by the discovery of oil at twice the depth of the existing 2,700-foot-deep wells -- lasted for a number of years. That year, five refineries combined to produce gasoline, lubricating oil and by-products valued at more than $14.3 or nearly $3 million more than what was produced in 1925. Oil production and processing was the state's third-largest industry during those heydays.
Today, approximately 9,000 oil-producing wells exist in the southwest part of the state; and while the oil industry remains a significant contributor to Arkansas's economy, its importance has declined considerably since the 1920s and '30s.
Preserving Arkansas's Oil History
In 1975, a small group of individuals envisioned a museum that would preserve and interpret Arkansas's oil history. Two years later, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 310, which levied a tax on the state's oil production to fund the museum's construction and operation. In 1979, the legislature also assessed brine, which is often found alongside oil deposits and from which bromine is extracted.
In 1980, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Turner of El Dorado donated 19 acres at Smackover as a site for the Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum. The facility operated under that name from its completion in May of 1986 until being renamed the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in 1997.
The museum's 26,000-square-foot exhibition center includes vintage photographs throughout; an auditorium that features two videos; a "Center of the Earth" exhibit that is accessed through a circular corridor depicting rock strata in the earth; a geologic time scale and fossils that explain how oil is formed; metal-cast and life-sized "roughnecks" working an oil derrick; exhibits on family life in the oil fields; dozens of vintage automobile gasoline pumps and petroleum company signs; exhibits on life in the area before the boom; and exhibits on modern drilling techniques.
Aboard a high-tech elevator, an ancient Jurassic seafloor comes into view and a voice-over provides narration as the capsule transports visitors through time to the Industrial Revolution, as depicted by dioramas visible from large windows. Visitors step outside the elevator and into an exhibit that focuses on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 through modern times.
From this exhibit, museum goers can peer from a replica of the Rogerson Hotel's second-floor veranda that overlooks a re-created, oil-era street scene in Smackover. The scene, which can also be explored on the first floor, includes numerous storefronts, a jail and a newspaper office as well as mannequins in period dress and vintage automobiles.
Outside, the center's Oilfield Park features seven operating examples of the oil-producing methods employed from the 1920s through today. The park contains a 112-foot wooden derrick similar to the one at the original Busey oil well. For those wanting to see an active oil field, the museum's staff has prepared maps for either 6- or 15-mile driving tours of the 40-acre Smackover Field that reveals remnants of early production, such as salt flats. The field is located just north of the museum.
Admission to the museum, which is a project of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department's Division of Museum Services, is free. The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and from noon on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"