Ms. Irene Hathaway, Wildcatter

The Texas Story Project.

One of my favorite stories of Cooke County is that of wildcatter Ms. Irene Hathaway. Hathaway was a traveling encyclopedia saleswoman from Kansas who first visited Cooke County in 1918. During her visit, a prospective oilman told her tales about large oil reservoirs hidden beneath the surface northeast of Gainesville. After that day, Irene decided she was going to drill for and find “black gold.”

I first heard about Irene Hathaway's story from my husband in the 1970s. Over the years I have collected more details through friends, relatives of friends, and the help of Steve Snuggs of Snuggs Oil. 

In order to accomplish her goal, Ms. Hathaway began leasing land in 1919 near Callisburg, which was located in the northeastern part of Cooke County. By 1922, she had returned to Cooke County with a representative from the Big Indian Oil Company. According to the Gainesville Daily Register account, drilling started at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 15, 1922. The newspaper story read, “The machinery and the bit began boring into the earth. The vibration could be felt over a wide area.” They drilled for two years on the Bud W. Davis farm hoping to find this illusive oil reservoir. The company was ready to abandon the location, but Irene was convinced oil was there. She strongly encouraged them to continue drilling just a little while longer, even making them an offer to pay the workers with money from her own pocket.

Betty Stephenson, beloved Gainesville resident, writer, and historian, interviewed and wrote an article with information from Bud W. Davis, the owner of the land where they were drilling the Big Indian #1. When the oil well came in on November 9, 1924, the Davises were seated at the kitchen table, leisurely enjoying a Sunday dinner, when their 16-year-old son, Ray, looked out the window and shouted, “The well’s blowin'!  Let’s run down and see it!”  Bud Davis calmly said, 'Eat your dinner, son. They’ll take care of that well ‘til we get through eatin’. We could hear ‘em hollerin’. Everybody just went crazy.”

By 2012, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the oil industry in Gainesville and Cooke County had revenues of over $575 million. Irene Hathaway’s vision, spirit, and grit were the catalyst that opened the way for the multi-million dollar oil industry in Gainesville and Cooke County. Ms. Hathaway took on this project with belief and dedication. She was able to convince Mr. Davis to lease his land for the exploration of oil, which at that time was sheer speculation.  I believe this story lives on because people were fascinated not only by the drilling process, but also by Ms. Hathaway and her vision.

Jayleane Mays Smith is a long-time resident of Gainesville and the director of the Morton Museum in Gainesville.

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