- Harsh Country, Hard Times: Clayton Wheat Williams and the Transformation of the Trans-Pecos
The Williams family of Fort Stockton is undoubtedly the best-documented family in West Texas. Oscar Waldo (“O. W.”) Williams settled in Fort Stockton in 1884. His account of his early adventures, Pioneer Surveyor, Pioneer Lawyer, edited by S. D. Myres, was published in 1966 by Texas Western Press. Forty-one years later Texas A&M University Press published Mike Cochran’s Claytie (2007), a biography of O. W.’s grandson, oilman and gubernatorial candidate Claytie Williams. Now Claytie’s sister, Janet Williams Pollard, has produced a biography of their father, Clayton Wheat Williams, co-authored with retired communications professor Louis Gwin.
Harsh Country, Hard Times is a fond daughter’s portrait of a remarkable father. Clayton Wheat Williams, who was born in Fort Stockton in 1895 and died there in 1983, was trained as an electrical engineer, but after service as an artillery officer in France in World War I he returned to West Texas to become a surveyor, self-taught petroleum geologist, independent oilman, farmer, rancher, public official, historian, and raconteur. O. W. Williams tried to instill in his children the habit [End Page 213] of carefully observing and recording what they saw every day, and as a result there are 600 boxes of Williams family papers in the Haley Memorial Library at Midland that Pollard and Gwin were able to draw upon for this very human portrait. Williams’s life is significant because his career as an oilman paralleled the development of the oil business in West Texas, and he participated in the transformation of West Texas’s economy from one based on ranching to one based on petroleum. He was a risk-taker from the start; in 1928 he brought in the deepest producing oil well in the world at 8,525 feet in the Big Lake Field, drilling in spite of two fires, broken cables, sabotage from competitors, and orders from his superiors to stop. Pollard and Gwin are able to place Williams’s career in its historical context and still make it a personal story. Williams was pugnacious by nature and several epic oil-field fistfights are described in detail. The authors demonstrate the same deftness in describing other phases of Williams’s life, always outlining the larger context and then telling Williams’s own story within that context. Historians will be particularly interested in Williams’s ventures into writing Texas history, which resulted in three books and several scholarly articles.
Their account is even-handed and surprisingly unbiased. Williams became a controversial figure in Fort Stockton in 1954, when his pumping of irrigation water for his farms contributed to the depletion of Comanche Springs, a popular recreation site and the source of water for farmers in the area. The authors present a neutral analysis of this issue, which cost Williams his seat on the Pecos County Commissioners Court in the 1954 election and split the town of Fort Stockton into pro- and anti-Williams factions for many years.
If this book has a flaw, it is discursiveness. The reader probably does not need a short history of Fortress Monroe in Virginia simply because Williams was briefly enrolled in an artillery school there during World War I, or a two-page account of the drilling of Santa Rita Number One because Williams later went to work for the company that drilled that well. On the other hand, Williams may well have told the stories that way himself. He was a stickler for historical detail.
Harsh Country, Hard Times is a very personal book. It is not a major contribution to the history of West Texas, but it is a warm and entertaining insight into the life of one who helped make that history.