The Orangefield oil boom of the 1920s
W. H. Stark dominated an entire industry and made a fortune as the “moving spirit” of the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company during its later years. He was young and invincible and always had his eyes open searching for new opportunities. When he was contacted by L. F. Benkenstien, a businessman who had his own prospects in Texas and Louisiana oil, the two became partners in the drilling companies that would jumpstart the oil industry in Southeast Texas. This early move brought great local enthusiasm and hope for the new industry.
In 1913, a gusher was discovered on the Bland property, several miles west of Orange. This well was very productive, but it was 1922 before another successful well was found. The Chesson well was located very close to the Bland well. A newspaper article from that time said that Mr. Chesson did not want to drill the oil or sell the 46 acres because he did not want to upset his goats. Once he understood that if he had the oil he would not need the goats, he gladly sold both and moved his family to Beaumont.
Explorations began in the area which quickly became significant. The boom town which became known as Orangefield sprang up overnight, demanding a Post Office in 1922. Businesses also crowded the muddy little road. People were crazy about “Texas Tea,” and the rest is history.
Mostly, during those days, the workers in Orangefield traveled from Orange. According to a local historian, Orange was “crowded with spectators, roughnecks, and their hangers-on. The population surged from 10,000 to 20,000. Physical facilities were strained to the limit: even Orange’s most elegant establishment, the Holland Hotel, was said to have placed cots in the lobby to handle the overflow.” There were several busses that would help transport these workers. The new town was plagued by traffic for quite some time.
In 1986, a local historian interviewed John Waldrep, then a 95-year-old Bridge City resident who gave a sobering account of those days. Waldrep stated, “I did a little bit of it all. I worked in the derricks for a whole year. And it was just for the mercy of God that I’m still living, that I didn’t fall out of them old wooden derricks, because they didn’t have run arounds for protection.”
The dirt roads were great mud pits created and made worse by seasonal flooding of the shallow and wayward Cow Bayou. When it rained, people could not get to the field. Waldrep said, “You couldn’t cross the streets because it was so muddy. Oxen and mules were used to haul the boilers and other equipment and once an ox drowned right ther in the road in a big mudhole.”
A local group organized and laid a six-mile board road that alleviated the problem somewhat, it was not until 1963 that the government stepped in and channeled seven miles of the bayou, making navigation and flood control possible.
Another problem that was brought on by sudden growth was pollution. One photograph shows a great oil well fire with great black billows of smoke. This was a typical occurrence. For many years, Orangefield was a dirty and disorganized conglomeration of country and industry with far more function than beauty or culture. Waldrep recalled that in Orangefield, a man could lose his life quickly, if not from the dangerous equipment, perhaps from violence. He said, “They’d kill one another out there.”
Orangefield has seen many changes over the years. As is typical with boom towns, the population of Orangefield has fluctuated. At the height of the boom, the population was about 1,000. That number fell to its lowest, 500, during the early 1950s, but has remained relatively stable at 725 for several decades.
Since Hurricanes Rita (2005) and Ike (2008), the number of derricks along Hwy 105 and Cow Bayou has decreased. Cody Ballard, 20, grew up under those derricks. He agreed that the oil heritage of Orangefield is not as obvious as it once was. He said, “Some of the derricks were torn down by the hurricanes, but some of them were just old or damaged that they needed to be taken down anyway.” Ballard added, “Unfortunately, not much remains from the muddy old streets of Orangefield that I’ve seen in pictures. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same place.” Ballard said that he is proud of his down-home heritage.
Beth Gibbs has lived in Orangefield for 26 years. She said, “I remember that when you got to the stop sign at the corner of 408 and 105 and looked across, there was nothing but woods. There were many derricks then. There was even a derrick next to the bridge that was lit up every year at Christmas. Of course, it was called the ‘Christmas tree’.”
The residents of Orangefield and surrounding areas are placing even greater value on local history these days. One outstanding citizen who played his part, not only in the oil boom itself, but also in the preservation and celebration of its history, was Paul Cormier.
Cormier grew up in the Orange oil field, as his father built wooden derricks. When his father was injured, the young Cormier had to quit school to help make ends meet, building derricks himself and delivering oil field supplies. He paid close attention and learned the business that would make him his own fortune. When he was grown, he was able to purchase a small oil work-over rig and pursue his dream of drilling for oil. He worked for other companies first. Then he began obtaining leases and drilling for himself. He became the most noteworthy, if not the most successful of the entrepreneurs of the oil boom. He has become to Orangefield what W. H. Stark was to Orange.
Later in his life, Paul Cormier realized another dream- to preserve the history of Orangefield. He began collecting items that he could one day assemble a museum of the “good old days.” One local has said, “He created in a plain metal warehouse, a 1920’s village that contains places like a jail, a bank, a saloon, a boarding house, a post office, a dentist office, a school, a general store, and a soda fountain. . . Most of the village is built with lumber from old buildings that were torn down in old Orangefield.” Also, there are collections of tools, toys, and old cars, all of which fascinated Mr. Cormier.
In 2009, the museum was given as a gift to the Orangefield ISD, and is located next to the school. Appointments can be made for small group visits, and it is always open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month. A frozen snapshot of 1920’s America, the museum is a remarkable place for anyone who loves Orangefield or history.
Though Orangefield seems small and obscure on the surface, it holds a piece of history that no one can appreciate as much as the residents do. Those who grew up around the oil field realize, like Mr. Cormier did, that one must understand and appreciate their past.