Stephen F. Austin State University

When it came to oil, Barret knew the drill (May 2019)

When it came to oil, Barret knew the drill

By Van Craddock

Gregg County transformed from a struggling agrarian society to untold wealth when the giant East Texas Oil Field was discovered in 1930-1931.

But you can credit Lyne Taliaferro Barret for drilling East Texas's first commercial oil well in September 1866, more than six decades earlier.

"The great excitement of this age is oil," Barret wrote a friend shortly after the Civil War had ended. "This region of Texas will be wild upon the subject in a few months."

A Virginia native, Barret's family moved to East Texas in the 1840s. It's said that growing up on his Nacogdoches County plantation, little "Tol" played in the oily waters of what was called Oil Springs, located near Nacogdoches.

The first to discover the springs were East Texas Cherokees, who skimmed the oil off the water's surface and used it for medicinal purposes. Learning from the local Indians, early Anglo settlers used the oil as a salve for their animals and to grease their wagon wheels and axles.

In August 1857, Barret married Angelina Martha Thomas and began to raise a family.

Two years later, in late 1859, the 26-year-old Barret began to wonder if Oil Springs might be suitable for drilling. After all, in August that year Edwin Drake had successfully brought in the nation's first commercial oil well near Titusville, Pa.

Many Pennsylvanians called the Drake well "Drake's Folly" before it hit pay dirt. Barret's East Texas well had its detractors too.

Barret contracted with the Skillern family to lease 279 acres at Oil Springs, located a dozen or so miles east of Nacogdoches. But before he could begin drilling, Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 and the Civil War began. Barret had to put his well plans on hold.

Exempted from military service, Barret served as a Confederate quartermaster captain until the war ended in 1865.

In October 1865 Barret organized the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company, aided financially by local businessmen John Earle, John Flint, Charles Hamilton and Benjamin Hollingsworth. He then assembled a small crew and began drilling.

On Sept. 12, 1866, at a depth of 106 feet, he brought in Texas' first producing oil well. Barret wrote a Nacogdoches friend that he had found "earth adhering to the auger perfectly saturated with oil."

Barret's well wasn't exactly a gusher, bringing in just 10 barrels of oil daily, but it was a producer.

Interestingly, Barret reportedly used a steam-powered device to drill that first Texas well. It employed the principle of today's rig, which bores a hole in the ground. By contrast, very early wells commonly used a cable tool that drilled with the "up and down" motion of a bit suspended on a cable or rope.

An excited Barret traveled to Pennsylvania to secure additional financing and equipment, but these were not good times in East Texas. The price of oil was low and Texas was under federal military control during the era of Reconstruction. Money was scarce and there was little demand for oil in rural Texas.

The Pennsylvania firm that was going to finance development at Oil Springs pulled out of its agreement with Barret. Reluctantly, Barret gave up his pipe dream and concentrated instead on farming and a mercantile firm he opened in the nearby community of Melrose.

Alas, Barret was ahead of his time. Two decades after Barret struck oil, drilling began anew at Oil Springs. In 1887 an oil boom began and within two years some forty producing wells were drilled in the area.

Oil Springs was the site of rig activity for many years.

"Tol" Barret died March 23, 1913, and was buried in the cemetery at Melrose Providence Baptist Church. A commemorative marker was placed on his grave in 1966, a century after Barret drilled the first oil well in Texas.