Tall tales from the Gibber

OIL-FIELD directions are not easy to follow. Turn right at cattle guard. Hook left at mesquite tree. Pass brown horse. Watch for jack rabbit crossing road. What with winding trails and mesquite thickets, it isn't surprising that I was soon hopelessly lost in the wilds of south Texas. But that was nothing to the surprise that emerged from a cactus patch in the person of a sturdy old gentleman on board a Studebaker freight wagon pulled by a team of bay mules and loaded with heavy steel drilling tools and a spool of rope. He wore a pair of 16-inch Red Wing boots laced to the knee, whipcord jodhpurs, and a khaki work-shirt.

Seeing me standing by my car, this old party reined in the mules, set a brake on the wagon, and hopped nimbly down. He took off a battered campaign hat (circa Spanish-American War), mopped his face with a red bandanna, and extended a work-hardened hand.

``Morgan!'' he announced. ``Gib Morgan. Where you headed?''

``Matthews,'' I answered. ``I'm looking for a wildcat well that's supposed to be drilling around here somewhere. I'm afraid I'm lost.''

``My, you are lost,'' Morgan grinned. ``Were you ever in the Fiji Islands?''

``Never even in my dreams,'' I said.

``Well, I thought I remembered you from the time I drilled that champagne well out there,'' Morgan said.

``Champagne well?'' I queried. ``What happened to it?''

``Went flat and turned to vinegar,'' Morgan allowed. ``It was after that happened that I brought in the buttermilk sand,'' he went on. ``Best buttermilk I ever tasted.''

``Did you make a commercial well of it?''

``I tried,'' Morgan said. ``I drilled ahead, but I hit a flow of alum.''

``Spoiled the buttermilk, did it?''

``What it did was, it shrank the hole so small we couldn't get the tools down it. Had to abandon the lease.''

It dawned on me that this remarkable storyteller was the original, and one-and-only Gib Morgan, a 19th-century oil driller who learned his trade along Oil Creek in Pennsylvania. He worked the Appalachian oil patch for half a century. As a teller of tall tales, he was known from New York to California. This Munchausen of the oil fields died in 1909 and is buried in Tennessee at the Mountain Home Cemetery.

``Ever worked in Texas before?'' I ventured.

``Why, sure,'' Morgan said. ``Mr. John D. Rockefeller asked me to drill a well in Texas with the world's biggest rig. The derrick covered an acre of ground. It was hinged in two places so's to let the moon get by.''

``Hit pay dirt?'' I asked.

``You bet. Shot the producing zone with nitroglycerin, and she came in a gusher,'' Morgan said. ``Which reminds me of the time I was chief driller for the Scarcely Able and Hardly Ever Got Oil Company. I bought a cow so's I could have cream for my coffee. But she went nearly dry and wouldn't give me but two ounces of milk a day. So I gave her 20 quarts of nitro. From that time on, she flowed at the rate of 10 gallons a day.''

``Ingenious!'' I exclaimed.

``Oh, that's nothin','' Morgan chuckled. ``Let me tell you about the time I was drilling for Mr. John D. Rockefeller down in the South American jungle. I ran out of drilling rope. Had to find something else to use instead.''

``What did you do?'' I asked.

``I found a boa constrictor snake about a mile long and spliced him into the drilling string. We drilled ahead and brought in a gusher that flowed 30,000 barrels an hour. I named that snake Strickie, and when he shed his skin, we used it to build a pipeline to transport the oil down the coast.''

``Is the field still producing?'' I wondered.

``It is, for a fact,'' Morgan said. ``But if it ever goes dry, I'll drill the wells a little bit deeper and bring in a good bay rum sand I know about. Rockefeller and I will go into the hair oil business.''

With that, Gib Morgan clapped me on the back, sprang up on the seat of his Studebaker, and clucked his mules into action.

``Oh, by the way,'' he called, as he left, ``that well you're looking for. Just turn right at the third cattle guard, take the left fork, watch for a blue quail crossing the road, and you'll see the rig behind a bois d'arc tree. You can't miss it.''

And then he was gone.

I never did find that rig.

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