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  • Oil on the Farm:The East Texas Oil Boom and the Origins of an Energy Economy
  • Wallace Scot McFarlane (bio)

During the 1930s, oil began to dominate the Texas economy. By the end of the decade, the value of petroleum products exceeded the value of the state's agricultural products—a dramatic change from 1929, when agriculture accounted for three times the value of oil. The discovery of the East Texas oil field in 1930, the largest oil reservoir ever found in the contiguous United States, made oil paramount. Vast wealth came from the East Texas field, which at its peak "produced about three-fifths of the Texas production, three-eighths of the United States production, and twenty-two per cent of the entire world's crude oil output."1 This affluence stood in stark contrast with the depressed agricultural economy of the five counties that encompassed the field. Yet despite this sudden abundance the boom increased inequality, concentrated wealth, and degraded the environment.

In contrast to the hardships many people experienced in reality, the myth of oil portrayed the oil industry as a source of new and uplifting opportunities that offered landowners and workers alike a clear break from an impoverished past.2 By focusing on all of the people living in the East Texas field, not only those who got rich, this article explores the origins of the oil myth and the many customs that endured in a decade of change. The East Texas oil boom happened in the context of Jim Crow, exhausted farmland, impoverished farmers, and shifting land use and [End Page 853] labor practices. Rather than a relationship in which petroleum revolutionized southern farms, the interplay of oil and agriculture presents a world in which both forces were constitutive. Southern agriculture underwent a massive transformation, one that dramatically affected the oil industry; simultaneously, the petroleum industry contributed to novel practices of agriculture. Examining patterns of landownership, labor, the political economy, and the environment emphasizes the relationship between oil and agriculture and offers an opportunity to understand why key aspects of this relationship were ignored and the costs of ignoring it.

Pointing to the moment of discovery in East Texas and the preexisting markets for oil's readily convertible energy frames the rise of the petroleum industry as an inevitable form of progress. Yet if this new world was inevitable, then it was because of the history of agriculture predating oil's discovery. Looking at the condition of the land and farmers' competing demands of stewardship, sustainability, and survival reveals how attitudes about the environment prepared residents to accept the degradation that followed. Corporate farmers' experience shaping the labor market through tractor purchases transferred to the oil industry, both in terms of reducing wages and in understanding the potential of new technology to constrain labor. At the same time, former planters drew on old lessons about how to gain land, becoming oilmen in the process. African American workers were excluded from the rigs—a new elaboration of Jim Crow in the countryside—while a legacy of violence and purloined land obscured the source of much wealth. Little evidence from the East Texas oil boom suggests that African Americans or tenant farmers, two overlapping groups whose members were often displaced by the boom, expressed a widespread consciousness of resistance toward the oil industry.3 By the Great Depression farmers across class lines, whether they were sharecroppers, tenants, small farm owners, or planters, agreed that the system of southern agriculture was broken, and they could at least hope that the discovery of black gold might improve their lives. No alternative to drilling oil existed. Choice presented itself in the form of memory. The possibility for reform, for a more equitable distribution of wealth, for a deeper concern about the [End Page 854] blackened streams, and for a better understanding of oil's new dangers lay in acknowledging the extent to which the oil industry depended on and fostered the instabilities and inequalities of East Texas agriculture.

In his history of the world's first oil boom, which began in 1859, Brian Black portrays oil's discovery as a clear break from previous ideas about environmental...


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