By Betty Mills
After attending a family funeral in Bowman, we drove east out of New England on Highway 21 where golden fields stretched for what seemed miles, sometimes from down one hill to the top of the next. It was the North Dakota harvest season of my youth with no sign of the prosperity and the tension of the oil patch injecting a chaotic note into an otherwise reassuring view.
Maybe the sense of peace is more than a sentimental return to those golden days when I worked on my father’s threshing crew and among other benefits managed three meals and two lunches a day without gaining a pound.
The harvest, the cattle herds, represent a renewable resource, the oil fields a one time harvest, and it is pretty obvious that the rules are different for each of those endeavors.
In North Dakota we have had more practice with agriculture, and despite air conditioned equipment and computer monitoring, and a host of other labor saving improvements in what can be a grueling workload, there is an abiding sameness still in the growing of crops and their harvest.
Not so in the oil fields of today’s North Dakota where “Bakken” has become an everyday word and there are more layers and more names to come according to predictions. With that in mind, I read a book on the discovery of oil in Texas which began in the early part of the 19th century. Entitled The Big Rich, The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, by Bryan Burrough, reporter and author of several previous books, it is not a description of what may happen here except in the descriptions of the effect of outside forces.
My guess is that most of us were first introduced to the big oil boys of Texas with Edna Ferber’s novel Giant, which was subsequently made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Ferber researched the oil scene of her day first hand, and the wildcatter pictured in the film was based on a real person, Glenn McCarthy, but there were others much more notable, with influence that affected a broader reach than the oil fields of Texas.
The big four, the author calls them, were H. L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and Roy Cullen, and it’s an astounding story and a wild ride.
They risked it all and won in such large numbers it’s hard to imagine any one individual raking in that much money. Their shopping list included airplanes and islands and vast ranch acreage along with more and more oil leases and the necessary equipment for exploration.
In the beginning and often along the way, they borrowed their access to success in mind boggling amounts. Most of them at one time or another teetered on the edge of bankruptcy along with their backers, but when they won, they were big spenders.
Not much for philanthropy until later in their lives, they were given to three day parties and all night poker, vast homes, exotic animals, and in the case of Hunt, three families, only one licensed.
The discovery of cheaper oil in the Middle East and rising costs eventually put an end to the huge profits of the Texas oil boom, but not before several of the big four got involved in politics nationwide mostly as ultra conservatives, against civil rights, government regulation, taxes, and unions.
They are considered the founders of the modern conservative movement and
the rise of the fundamentalist right, and they poured money and influence into the politicians and the issues they supported which included Senator Joe McCarthy and, surprisingly, Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower.
They hated the New Deal and Roosevelt, and any programs thus created, and there was a strong streak of white supremist and anti-semitism in the group. In a natural succession to these men, we have the Koch brothers as major funders of the Tea Party which shares some of those same views judging from the visible signs during their rallies.
Obviously the challenge is to keep the best of both enterprises—to somehow use the profits pouring out of the oil patch for the benefit of all North Dakotans and for the nation which needs to kick its Middle East oil dependency, and at the same time to remain aware of those who risk their financial assets and sadly sometimes their lives, to maintain oil production.
But we need also to hang on to our agricultural heritage and to the mindset which allowed us to survive drought and depression, perhaps a better builder of character than the excess riches of oil if we were to judge by the “Big Four.”
As North Dakotans at least of my generation, we rather pride ourselves on our frugality, our ability to “make do.” Now let’s see how we do with prosperity.
(Betty Mills has been a newspaper columnist in Bismarck for 26 years.)