A Fading Town's Liquid Legacy:
Once-thriving Electra hopes
'Pump Jack' title brings new fortune
Dallas Morning News
By BERNADETTE PRUITT
/ Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
ELECTRA, Texas – At every turn on this sun-scorched
plain, oil well
pump jacks peck at the earth like Jurassic
This is the "Pump
Jack Capital of Texas"
Electra, a northwest Texas town of 3,100 near Wichita
claim to approximately 5,000 pump jacks within a
Its pump jack title was
awarded in May by the Legislature.
"The pump jacks are monuments of perpetual motion,
monuments to our
heritage," said Carolyn Adams, whose efforts
led to the designation.
"We're classic Texas – cattle, crude and
oil is what put Electra in the history books."
Oil was discovered in the area in 1900, but it was the
in 1911 that sent Electra's fortunes skyward and
set off the North Texas oil
boom. The boom is history, but
Wichita County still maintains a respectable
showing in crude
oil production. In 2000, it was 36th among the state's 254
counties, according to the Oil and Gas Division of the Railroad
of Texas. Wilbarger County, also included in
the radius, ranked 94th.
Like mesquite trees, the jacks are such landscape
fixtures that most
Electrans pay little attention to them. But
tourists do. Out-of-staters
stopping at the convenience store
that Mrs. Adams and her husband,
Herbie, once owned often asked about
"They'd move their
hands up and down and say, 'What's that out there?' "
She would explain that the jacks pump oil out of the
transfer it to storage tanks through pipelines. She
would tell the
story of pioneer rancher W.T. Waggoner, who was
he wanted water for his cattle but kept
striking oil instead. She would
Clayco No. 1 and how it changed the town.
That experience, along with a tourism workshop she
as a board member of Electra's Main Street Project, led
an epiphany: The answer to the question of how to promote
been creaking in the oil patch all along.
Mrs. Adams tallied active well numbers with the help
Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Railroad Commission of
and major oil companies. With the backing of residents and
she contacted state Sen. Tom Haywood and Rep.
Rick Hardcastle, who
pushed the "Pump Jack
Capital" resolution through the Legislature.
"I think the designation is very proper," said Tom
Miller, a retired
oil field supplier who furnished many of
Electra's pump jacks.
"I don't know if there's a place in the
world where there are more
Mr. Miller, 78, is one of the old-timers who make up
Do Nothing Club, which meets daily at the local Dairy Queen.
Many are retired from oil-related
"The town deserves the honor," said Henry Bellah, 81,
pump jacks on many of the leases.
Dink Robb, 92, the self-proclaimed CEO of the Do
never experienced a time when Electra didn't mean
oil. He was a
toddler when the Clayco blew in on April 1, 1911.
a telephone operator, was the first to break the
news of the
gusher to downtown merchants.
"They thought she was joking because it was April
said the former telephone company
The resulting boom gave Electrans a solid appreciation
for the black ooze that
they once considered a nuisance, Mr. Robb
"At first, there weren't any cars, and about the only
thing oil was good for
was to help repel chickenhouse mites," he
The area owes its
high concentration of pump jacks to at least two factors.
Ralph Waggoner, a Wichita Falls geologist and a
W.T. Waggoner, said the wide distribution of sands
Red River uplift make the
area especially favorable to oil production.
In addition, many of the wells are shallow, he said.
the wells, the less space there has to be between
them, according to
Commission spacing rules.
As the pump jacks have bobbed up and down, so have
prospects. In 1946, there were five gasoline plants,
12 oil field
supply houses and a refinery. The last really good
years were in the
late '70s and early '80s, said Mr. Miller, a
former pump jack supplier.
Electra's tree-lined, frontier-style business district
is speckled with
empty storefronts. Its population is little
more than half of what
it once was. The W.T. Waggoner Refinery
is now a heap of rusty
scrap metal. Translation: The recent
uptick in the oil industry probably
won't be felt
much in Electra, said City Administrator Corrin McGrath.
"That money may be earned here, but it's going to be
spent elsewhere –
probably in Wichita Falls," he said.
On the upside, there are 14 oil field companies still
the area. Electra's largest employer, Natco,
continues to build oil tanks.
percent of area wells are producing, he said.
One of the oldest wells, drilled in 1911 after the
is still pumping, leasing records
Electra may be past its heyday, but there's still
reason to celebrate,
Mrs. Adams contends. She hopes to parlay
the town's pump jack
designation into an annual festival,
starting in April. She'd like to
allow tourists a close-up look
at a pump jack, which some consider
ugly in a
prehistoric-beast sort of way.
"To me, they're pretty," said Mr. Miller, who still
likes to drive around
with his wife, Odessa, and watch them. "They
made me a living."
Bernadette Pruitt is
a Wichita Falls-based free-lance writer.