Do You Know Why There’s Oil in Texas?

Wind, water and time. Isn’t that always the answer?

Texas used to be an ocean floor. Oil and natural gas are made by the decomposition of marine life, and with time, oil rises to the land’s surface, seeping into the rock. You could light a kitchen match simply by holding it in the air in the areas where natural gases escape. Amazing. And terrifying.

And how do you know where the gases are escaping? Because it smells–like sulphur, real rotten eggs, and the Paleolithic era. Some call it the smell of money. After staying in Luling Texas for a few days, one of the top 12 oil producers in the country, every fabric in my camper was steeped in the smell. Not everything can be laundered, so I simmered cinnamon for two days to get rid of the stench. Blech.

Native Americans knew about oil for generations before Europeans began exploiting it. The indigenous people thought it had medicinal purposes; a Spanish explorer run ashore used the oil to caulk damages to the ship. This ruins my romantic imaginings of drilling for water and finding oil instead. I’ll get over it.

First, Some Vocabulary

oil terminology

Photos courtesy of

The hunt for oil has its own terms. You spud a well when you’re drilling and hoping for oil. A duster means you drilled and got bupkis. Wildcatters are the ones who seek and scavenge places to drill.

As for the labor, there are many positions–I just like the names for these two. A roughneck connects the pipe down the well bore. This is hard manual labor in a dangerous environment. These. Are. Men. Grrr. A roustabout maintains the oil field so the roughneck can do his job without worrying about repairs, paint, cleanup, etc. An early 2010 survey by of best and worst jobs — based on five criteria: environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands and stress — rated ‘roustabout’ as the worst job. (source: Wikipedia, who’s source in turn was

Getting to the Oil

Wells  in-town (and there are many), are 1500-2000 feet deep. But there are many where a well is up to 9000 feet deep. And getting there is not easy peasy.

They bore through rock, which is surely as excruciating as it sounds. To find out where to drill, they take rock samples near creeks–because creeks form along fault lines, and faults are natural traps for oil. The hope is that the rock sample is saturated with oil–remember that it rises to the surface. If so, it’s full steam ahead.

Texas Oil Boom

A “boom” means it’s a time of high prosperity and massive activity. That describes Texas in the early 1900s. A boomtown is one centered in the activity, and often is growing faster than it can support. For oil, and surely gold and any other boom, tent cities rose out of nothing; erected so close together that poles criss-crossed each other. More people lived in the tent cities than in the city-proper. They had their own dance halls, if you want to call them that, bars, supplies. Schools were overpopulated, accommodating the kids from tents and from town.

The derricks themselves were ridiculously prolific and built nearly on top each other. It looked like a metro downtown with skyscrapers. The Railroad Commission ultimately had to set regulations for spacing so they wouldn’t catch each other on fire, as was apt to happen.


Photos courtesy of

And everyone hoped for a gusher. That meant you hit pay dirt. They didn’t care about clothes or themselves getting sludgy and dirty. It was raining money.


Photo courtesy of

Now, just because you’ve found oil, doesn’t mean you own the land. The drillers are leasing from the land owners, often farmers. And even today, property serves double duty: oil below and cattle above. Pump jacks are spread across the land and underground pipes channel the oil to a central gathering on the lease. Agreements are made about frequency of trucks entering the property to empty the oil tank. And depending on the size of the land lease, there may be multiple gathering points.

buried underground

This sign is in reference to cable buried underground, but note the mention of “pushing pipe.” Photo courtesy of me. 

Hats and Wrenches

The Central Texas Oil Patch Museum archives not only oil’s history in Luling Texas, but educates about the tools of the trade.

Roughly 150 baseball and trucker caps line the walls in a shadow box, commemorating the companies that earned–and still do–a living off of Luling’s oil. Wrenches of every size, up to ones literally half as tall as my 5’8″ frame. Drillbits that look like Egyptian artifacts.

Central Texas Oil Patch Museum

Photos courtesy of me.

There’s a sample of crude oil in a glass jar, and it was surprisingly water-like. Which as it turns out, is because when you’re drilling for oil, you often also get water. Makes sense. So after its been separated, the water is returned to the ground and the oil sent off to refinery school.

Decorated Pump Jacks

Indeed. Luling has 184 wells within the city limits (and a handful of stoplights), so locals decided to have fun and decorate the ugly things that occupy yards, city parks, parking lots. Well, the Chamber of Commerce got wind and commissioned an artist, George Kalesik, to make a few more with professional whimsy.

I didn’t take these pics: unlike the USPS, I am deterred by wind, rain, sleet, and snow. The 30+ mph winds that day just blew the creativity right out of me. Click the pic to advance the slideshow. Images courtesy of Flickr.

Working and not Working

In addition to junkyards for cars and scraps, Texas also has them for pump jacks. That makes me smile.

Pump Jack junkyard

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Want to see a pump jack in motion? Of course you do! I filmed this in Oklahoma–same thing, different place.

Despite being smelly and earning other people gobs of money, I smile when I pass an oil field. It’s so Texas. It’s so new to me. It’s so incredible.


Would you have gone hunting for oil back in the day?

4 Responses


Not only would I, I do. I’ve been in the Oil and Gas industry my whole life. I’m third generation with my gramps starting back in the 30’s. regardless of the political climate these days, the industry is full of wonderful people who act like one great big family.

Anonymous – great comment about the people and community!


Your CommentsI’m well aware of oil fields. I am from Galveston and have passed many oilfields between there and Houston in the past. Oil is pure gold! Sounds like you are getting quite an education. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Leah – I’m having a wonderful time. And learning is a significant part of it!

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