Stephen F. Austin State University

The general restored order in East Texas field (June 2017)

The general restored order in East Texas field

By Van Craddock

Black gold brought untold wealth to Gregg County and East Texas. It also brought chaos.

However, by late September 1931, martial law had restored a semblance of order to the great East Texas oil Field. Gov. Ross Sterling and Brig. Gen. Jacob Wolters made sure of that.

In late 1930 and early 1931, three oil wells came in near Henderson, Kilgore and Longview. The wells weren't isolated pockets of petroleum. Rather, the wells confirmed the existence of one huge field, the largest in the United States.

The East Texas field covered parts of five counties, including Gregg County. The nation's Great Depression was all but forgotten locally as thousands of roughnecks, wildcatters, refiners and other folks scrambled into East Texas to make their fortunes.

By August 1931, the field was producing a million barrels of oil a day. As production soared, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted from almost a dollar to six cents. That's when the state of Texas stepped in.

Gov. Sterling declared martial law, ordering the Texas Rangers and some 1,200 Texas National Guardsmen into the field. All 1,600-plus wells were shut down until further notice in Gregg and other counties.

"There exists an organized and entrenched group of crude petroleum oil and natural gas producers … who are in a state of insurrection against the conservation laws of the state," read Sterling's Aug. 16 martial law proclamation.

"Resistance to the law of the state is insurrection," said Wolters as he stepped off a train in Kilgore on Aug. 17. "That's war, whether it be armed or not … Violators will be arrested and held in jail until martial law is lifted to prevent them doing any more damage to the field."

However, the general noted the soldiers "come not as enemies, but as friends. We want the cooperation of our fellow Texans in carrying out the conservation laws of this state."

Wolters had an awesome task: responsibility for an oil field covering 2,815 square miles. But the general was the man for the job.

Born in 1871, Wolters was a graduate of Add-Ran College (later called Texas Christian University). He was a lawyer and former Fayette County state legislator. He long had been involved in Texas Democratic Party activities, running unsuccessfully for U.S. senator in 1912.

Wolters had joined the Texas National Guard as a private in 1891. He served as a lieutenant in the First Texas Cavalry during the Spanish-American War and organized the Fifty-Sixth Cavalry Brigade during World War I. He became brigadier general of the Texas National Guard in 1918.

Wolters was familiar with Gregg County. In July 1919 he'd commanded Guardsmen in Longview when martial law was declared because of a race riot. In 1920 he led 2,000 state militia to Galveston to keep peace during a longshoremen's strike. He'd also commanded troops at oil-boom disturbances at Mexia and Borger.

Not everyone was happy to see the National Guardsmen and Texas Rangers. In late August arsonists burned several Kilgore churches. Kilgore residents were "in a state of feverish excitement" over the blazes. Wolters banned any "mass gatherings" in the area. Some independent producers used illegal means to keep their oil flowing.

In addition to guarding the enormous field, Wolters' state militia was battling those attracted to an oil boom: gamblers, bootleggers, thieves and prostitutes.

Kilgore Mayor J. Malcolm supported what Gov. Sterling had done. "We feel that martial law is and has been acceptable to the good citizens of East Texas is beyond question," said the mayor. "We feel that disaster was averted by your heroic act."

The East Texas field resumed production on Sept. 5 with the Texas Railroad Commission issuing a proration order limited the field's production to 400,000 barrels a day. A federal judge finally ended martial law in February 1932.

Brig. Gen. Jacob Wolters died in October 1935. He was serving as general counsel for the Texas Company (later called Texaco) at the time of his death.

Palo Pinto County's Fort Wolters, established in 1925, is named after the man who maintained order in the East Texas Oil Field.