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Harsh Country, Hard Times

Clayton Wheat Williams and the Transfsormation of the Trans-Pecos

Janet Williams Pollard and Louis Gwin

Publication Year: 2011

Clayton Wheat Williams—West Texas oilman, rancher, civic leader, veteran of the Great War, and avocational historian—was a risk taker, who both reflected and molded the history of his region. His life spanned a dynamic period in Texas history when automobiles replaced horse-drawn wagons, electricity replaced steam power in the oilfields, and barren and virtually worthless ranch land became valuable for the oil and gas under its surface. The setting for Williams’s story, like that of his father before him, is Fort Stockton in the rugged Trans-Pecos region of Texas. As a youngster accompanying his father on surveying trips through the land, and subsequently as a cadet at Texas A&M, he developed a toughness that served him well in France and Flanders. His letters home provide an unusually nuanced picture of what life was like for an American officer in Europe during the Great War. After the war, he returned home, where he taught himself petroleum geology—so effectively that he picked the site of what would become in 1928 the deepest producing oil well in the world. With his brother, he mapped the structure of what later became the Fort Stockton oil and gas field, and he went on to hammer out a successful career in the boom and bust cycles of the West Texas oil industry. On the civic front, Williams served for fourteen years as a Pecos County commissioner, and he held offices in a number of social and civic organizations. Imbued with a deep love for the history of his region, he wrote (with the editorial help of historian Ernest Wallace at Texas Tech University) Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861–1895, published by Texas A&M University Press in 1982. Nonetheless, by some of his neighbors he may be best remembered for his role in drying up the town’s famous Comanche Springs by pumping water feeding the spring’s aquifer to irrigate his and others’ farms west of town. Williams left behind a treasure trove of letters, personal papers and writings, and interviews with his family, helping document in rich detail the history of an unforgiving land as well as what life was like during a pivotal period of American history. These materials, which form the core of the present manuscript, reveal a life that made a difference in the economy and history of the region and the nation at large.  

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Clayton Wheat Williams Texas Life Series

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pp. vii-ix

This collaboration had its genesis in 2007, when Janet Pollard met Bill Krumpack while traveling with a group of Austin opera buffs in Italy. When Janet told Bill that she needed someone to help her organize a book about her father’s life, he mentioned Louis Gwin, a retired associate professor of communications who had considerable experience as a writer. After several telephone conversations and a meeting in Midland that summer, the project was born. ...

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pp. xi-xiv

Wıth these sentences, I began years ago to write the story of my father’s life, having promised to complete the autobiography he had begun in his final year. Clayton Williams’s story is one of rugged individualism and risk-taking in a period of transformation for the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. ...

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Chapter 1: "Paradise for Men and Dogs and Hell for Women and Horses"

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pp. 1-31

Interstates 10 and 20 cut through the Trans- Pecos region of Texas like arrows before joining to become Interstate 10 about 150 miles east of El Paso. Most people traveling these highways probably wouldn’t recognize the term Trans-Pecos and simply call the passing landscape West Texas, but the Trans-Pecos is a distinct region, bordered on the east by the Pecos River, on the south and west by the Rio Grande, and on the north by the 32nd parallel that forms the boundary with New Mexico.1 ...

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Chapter 2: Growing Up in Fort Stockton

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pp. 32-52

By 1899 O. W. had established his reputation as a firm but fair judge, but he was having a difficult time making ends meet at Rancho de la Palma. Clayton recalled watching a team of horses pull his father’s bedraggled cows out of the river-bottom quicksand; many did not survive. ...

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Chapter 3: The Suicide Club

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pp. 53-67

On a fall morning in 1917, twenty-two-year old Clayton woke in his hotel room to the long, low moan of a ship’s whistle signaling that another convoy carrying American troops and matériel to England was about to leave the peaceful harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Kroonland was loaded with men and supplies ultimately bound for the trenches and battlefields of Belgium and France, but it was leaving without Clayton and one of his newly commissioned companion officers.1 ...

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Chapter 4: French Friends and New Adventures

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pp. 68-84

Clayton finished his training at the French Trench Artillery School on November 17 and received orders to help establish the AEF Trench Mortar School at Fort de la Bonnelle, near the city of Langres, southeast of Paris and just north of Dijon. The school combined the American officers who had trained at Bourges with ten American officers who had attended the British Second Army Trench Artillery School at Saint Omer, France, a total of sixty men, as well as two French officers for liaison...

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Chapter 5: Paris Is Bombed

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pp. 85-101

Germany began making night bombing raids on Paris in 1917, and a few days before the La Courneuve depot explosion, Clayton witnessed two nighttime air attacks on the city. In a March 8 attack, thirteen civilians were killed and fifty were injured, while on the night of March 11 some sixty German aircraft dropped bombs that directly killed thirty-four civilians and injured seventy-nine. ...

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Chapter 6: Searching for Oil West of the Pecos

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pp. 102-118

Clayton came back in 1919 to a country that was jubilant over the return of its men from war but uncertain what to do with them. Although greeted with bands, parades, and the promise of bonuses for their time in service, the doughboys found few opportunities for employment. Just as the country had been ill prepared for war, it was ill prepared for peace. ...

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Chapter 7: "Dangerous Business and Dangerous Surroundings"

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pp. 119-131

Clayton’s time in the oil fields from 1924 to 1928 mirrored the rough-and-tumble life of oilmen everywhere, and his stories illustrated the frontier lifestyle of the oil industry of that period, which was frequently marked by drunken fights that sometimes resulted in injury and death. “Dangerous business and dangerous surroundings—that was the code of the day,” Clayton said years later. ...

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Chapter 8: Drilling the University No. 1-B Well

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pp. 132-143

About two years after joining Texon, Clayton began to suspect that oil deposits might be found at depths far greater than those penetrated by the successful wells previously drilled by Texon and Group No. 1 in the Big Lake field. The first clues came when he analyzed drill cuttings taken from the so-called “Mystery” well, which, at 6,004 feet, was the deepest well sunk at the time (Santa Rita No. 1 had struck oil at a depth of 3,050 feet).1 ...

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Chapter 9: Risk, Failure, and Reward

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pp. 144-161

Having resigned from Texon and married at age thirty-three, Clayton now set about building a life that would revolve around the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil business without, as he would later put it, having to live in the sulfur stink of the oil fields. He wanted to be an independent oil operator with his home and headquarters in Fort Stockton. ...

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Chapter 10: A Public Figure

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pp. 162-184

Pecos County, like each of the 254 counties in Texas, is governed by a commissioners court composed of four precinct commissioners and a county judge. Commissioners have a variety of responsibilities that include road maintenance, establishing the county’s budget and property tax rates, authorizing contracts in the name of the county, establishing the county’s employment level, and calling, conducting, and certifying elections. ...

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Chapter 11: A Love of History

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pp. 185-206

By 1955, Clayton and J. C. had sold the stock from their ranching operation west of Fort Stockton and leased out the remaining farmland. Clayton, according to his children, never loved farming and ranching but recognized the value of the water located under his land and was able to sell at a good profit. ...

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pp. 207-208

In the summer of 1984, Clayton Williams was nominated to the Hall of Fame of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland. He was formally inducted in 1987, the first year he was eligible after his nomination. There he joined Carl Cromwell, Frank Pickrell, and others who had “made outstanding contributions to the development of the petroleum industry or have served as worthy examples to those in the petroleum industry.” ...


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pp. 209-235


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pp. 237-242


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pp. 243-250

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444798
E-ISBN-10: 1603444793
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603442831
Print-ISBN-10: 1603442839

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 37 b&w photos. 2 line art. Map. Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Clayton Wheat Williams Texas Life Series