- Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch
Bobby Weaver began research for this book decades ago when he started collecting the personal stories of the men who labored in and around the oilfields. By the time he was prepared to write, he had collected about 350 interviews of oilfield workers. Many of the interviews contained valuable accounts of life in the early days of the oil fields. These stories, along with secondary sources, became the backbone of Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch.
The book is densely packed with informative tidbits that describe the hardships experienced as part of daily life in a succession of Texas oilfield and boomtowns beginning on the Texas Coast and moving into West Texas. Housing shortages forced men to share not only rooms but often bunks, sleeping in rotation. Food was expensive and basic—at best. Men rarely bathed and often wore the same overalls until they wore out. In boomtowns and on drilling location, potable water became a luxury. Primitive transportation throughout Texas made supplying living essentials and drilling equipment difficult. Finally, Weaver describes the seamier people who inhabited boom towns explaining that gamblers, bootleggers, and prostitutes followed from boomtown to boomtown.
Weaver begins this story at Spindletop and continues with the discovery at Sour Lake and then progresses to stories of the oil strikes in the Permian Basin and in East Texas. As Weaver narrates the story of workers in each oil field, he incorporates the technological innovations that took place in the oil industry itself. For example, he explains the evolution of drilling mud and how illumination on the derricks changed from yellow dog lanterns to electric lights. Weaver also explains the evolution of drilling crews, describing the jobs of drillers, derrick men, roustabouts, derrick builders, shooters, and pipeline workers. Thus, the reader learns not just about the men’s lives but also about the professionalization that took place in the oil patch. [End Page 209]
Weaver enhances the story with photographs of oil wells and boomtowns, and he adds a chapter titled “A Language of Their Own,” which enriches the book with explanations of oilfield slang and terminology. For example, he tells how the term Oil Patch evolved, and explains the history of the valve system called a “Christmas tree” that sits atop wells to prevent a blowout. The glossary is a great aid for anyone who is not familiar with the oil industry and is an item often forgotten by writers who themselves emerge from the industry.
In writing Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch, Weaver set out to tell the story of often forgotten oilfield laborers, and he explains that most jobs in the oilfield were open only to white workers. Weaver synthesizes many of the stories, and he never notes which stories were told by whites and which by blacks, if any. In combining the stories, he loses individual narratives, and as he merges the stories he makes one oilfield sound much like another oilfield and loses the individuality of each field.
Nevertheless, this is an important book. Most written accounts of life in the oil-field focus on the larger-than-life wildcatter or driller turned entrepreneur, Weaver’s book provides a unique glimpse into the actual lives of the “oilfield trash.”