By Dan Piller, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas
Jan. 22–LONGVIEW — Seventy-five years ago this week, roughnecks opened the wellhead valves on an oil-drilling platform set in the pines of Gregg County seven miles northwest of Longview. A crowd estimated at 15,000 focused intense anticipation on the rig.
For a few minutes only a modest spurt of no more than about 10 feet came forth from the wellhead.
Suddenly the ground shook, and an underground roar could be heard. A spurt of black crude oil shot out horizontally from the wellhead more than 100 feet into the sludge pit.
On the rig deck, pumper Farrell Trapp could read the meter showing a flow of 20,000 barrels per day. The well’s co-owners, William Alvin “Monty” Moncrief and John E. Farrell of Fort Worth, didn’t need a meter to know they had brought in a gusher. Moncrief let out a whoop and threw his hat into the air. The gathered crowd, which included schoolchildren let out for the day to witness the event, drowned out Moncrief’s shout with a cheer of its own.
Moncrief’s 10-year-old son, Tex, watched the scene with his mother, Elizabeth.
“It was just the greatest thing I ever saw,” the 85-year-old Tex Moncrief recalled. “People were jumping around and hollering and hugging each other just like they’d won a football game. I decided on the spot that I wanted to become an oilman.”
The Moncrief fortune and dynasty, which would play a prominent role in Fort Worth and Texas for the remainder of the 20th Century, was born that day, Jan. 26, 1931. Within a year, Moncrief and Farrell had sold their leases for the equivalent of $30 million in today’s dollars.
While Farrell went into semiretirement to devote himself to philanthropy in Fort Worth, Moncrief would make a string of successful oil and gas discoveries that would eventually push the family fortune well beyond $1 billion. Moncrief money would finance Fort Worth’s first radiation center for cancer treatment. TCU students now live in Moncrief Hall. The Horned Frogs play on the Monty & Tex Moncrief Field and the University of Texas will put its national championship football trophy in Moncrief-Neuhaus Center at the south end of Memorial Stadium.
Monty and his son Tex, along with Tex’s sons Charlie, Richard and Tom, expanded the family business with later oil strikes in West Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, northern Florida and — most significantly for today’s operations — Wyoming. Tex’s son Richard has taken the Moncrief name abroad to Russia and the Caspian Sea.
Where other Texas wildcatter families such as the Basses, Hunts and Murchisons used their oil wealth to move into high finance, real estate or professional sports, the Moncriefs continue to be, as Tex says, “all about oil and gas. We haven’t gotten into a lot of different stuff.”
Today, the Moncriefs are plotting their next move closer to home. The walls of the Moncrief office building at 950 Commerce St. in downtown Fort Worth are adorned with colorful 3-D seismic images of the Barnett Shale on Moncrief ranch property in Parker County. This month, the Moncriefs joined Texas’ hottest natural-gas play with their first wells.
Tex Moncrief is thus one of the few, if only, Texas oilmen to have seen both an East Texas gusher and to see his rigs drill in the Barnett Shale.
The big well that came forth in Gregg County that day 75 years ago confirmed for skeptics that the East Texas field was not just the one-well wonder that wildcatter “Dad” Joiner had brought in 27 miles to the south near Henderson three months earlier. Rather, it was a 45-mile long pool of oil stretching from Rusk to Upshur counties that would produce 5.3 billion barrels of oil by the end of the century, more than any other field in Texas.
Historian Daniel Yergin, in his influential book The Prize, wrote, “Ultimately, the East Texas field came to be known as the Black Giant. Nothing to compare with it had ever before been discovered in America. And the boom that followed made all the others — in Pennsylvania, at Spindletop, elsewhere in Texas, at Cushing, Greater Seminole and Oklahoma City and Signal Hill in California, look like dress rehearsals.”
East Texas oil, which would launch several Texas fortunes, was also credited by Yergin and other historians with giving the Allies a crucial strategic advantage in World War II.
Young Tex fulfilled the ambition that dawned that January day in 1931. After earning an engineering degree from the University of Texas and serving in the Navy during World War II, Tex came home to work with his father.
The first Moncrief father-son effort was in the Scurry Field in West Texas midway between Abilene and Lubbock. Monty had brought in some West Texas fields before the war and soon afterward. Tex did geological and engineering work in West Texas to determine where the next great strike might be.
“I told dad that Scurry County looked promising and he said, ‘Forget it, there’s nothing there,'” Tex recalls. “Not long after that I got a call from Dad, and he ordered me to get a rig out to Scurry County. I asked why and he said, ‘Just do it.'”
What happened was that Monty, who by then owned a winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., had encountered a Dallas geologist named Paul Teas at the Santa Anita horse track. Moncrief listened to Teas’ tale of a big opportunity in Scurry County and accepted Teas’ offer of some leases.
“I learned then that in this business you always keep looking for more information,” Tex says with a laugh.
Beginning in 1948, Monty and Tex drilled 28 successful wells in Scurry County, a field that would produce more than 1.2 billion barrels and become the Moncrief’s largest strike.
The Scurry Field began Tex’s close working relationship with his father. “I worshipped the man,” Tex says. “He was the greatest.”
Monty and Tex developed big fields in central Louisiana and worked together in Oklahoma and New Mexico. By the late 1960s, Tex’s sons Charlie and Richard were old enough to begin working with Tex and Monty when the family brought in the big Jay Field in north Florida.
“That was a lot of fun, to be able to work with both Dad and my own sons,” Tex recalls. Charlie and Tex’s other son, Tom, has stayed with Tex in operations in the continental United States. Richard Moncrief has operated internationally, in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Through the years, both domestically and internationally, Tex has held firm to his dad’s long-standing rule; operate through sole proprietorships and never, under any circumstances, go public.
“Dad had seen his old employer, Marland Oil, go broke in the 1929 market crash,” Tex says. “He said we should always be private, and we still are.”
Tex says his father was wonderful to work with. But he dismisses the idea that Monty Moncrief possessed special secrets to finding oil.
“People were always asking Dad what was the secret to finding oil, and he’d say, ‘There is no secret, you just work hard and tend to all the details,'” Tex says.
This month the family sank its first wells into the Barnett Shale natural-gas field. Although Monty had to hustle leases three-quarters of a century ago to help start the East Texas field, the Moncriefs have entered the Barnett Shale by drilling on their 20,000-acre ranch east of Weatherford.
“We’ll probably drill about 15-18 Barnett Shale wells in Parker County this year,” Charlie Moncrief says. Tex, who has seen it all, is as excited about the Barnett Shale today as he was 75 years ago in East Texas.
“The Barnett Shale is going to go down as one of the great plays in Texas history,” says Tex, who despite several strokes can still expertly read 3-D seismic images. “We missed the first part of the Barnett Shale play because we didn’t think it would work. But it’s a great play. There’s supposed to be 26 trillion cubic feet of gas down there, and it will take a long time to get it out.”
Tex Moncrief talks like a man who expects to be working in the oil and gas business until his last day, just as Monty did until he died in his office in 1986.
“In many ways, this is the best time in history to be in the oil and gas business. The technology is so much better and certainly there is more profit in the business today. The current prices for oil and natural gas should hold up, and I can’t think of a better time to be an oilman.”
The Barnett Shale operations represent something of a return to Texas for the Moncriefs, who over the years have sold many of their properties, including the original East Texas well.
Texas Railroad Commission data show that the Moncriefs produced 153 million cubic feet of natural gas in the state for the 12 months ended in October, mostly from the Teague Field in Freestone County and older wells in the Strawn Formation on the Parker County ranch. During the same period, the Moncriefs produced 12,210 barrels of oil in Texas, mostly from Cochran, Gaines and Pecos counties in West Texas.
The figures likely understate the Moncriefs’ impact in Texas, however, because the family does many joint ventures and lease arrangements.
The Moncriefs’ Texas production is small compared to some of Fort Worth’s other old-line private energy firms. Bass Enterprises, the legacy of Sid Richardson, produced 22 billion cubic feet of gas and 1.9 million barrels of oil in Texas during that time. Burnett Oil, the family legacy from the legendary Capt. Samuel Burk Burnett and Fort Worth oilman Bob Windfohr, produced 3.9 billion cubic feet of gas and 269,830 barrels of oil in Texas
It is in Wyoming where the Moncriefs now make their biggest impact. During the 12 months ended last October, Moncrief production totaled 25.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 41,373 barrels of oil, according to the Wyoming Oil & Gas Commission.
The Moncriefs have been a force in Wyoming since the mid-1970s. Wyoming was largely Tex Moncrief’s contribution to the legacy.
“Dad always thought that Wyoming would be a good place for an independent to operate, just like Texas has been over the years,” Tex says.
“Tex’s contribution to the Wyoming operation was huge,” says Fort Worth independent oilman Fred Rabalais, who was chief engineer for the Moncrief family for a decade beginning in 1970. “Sometimes Tex is overlooked as an oilman, but he’s every bit as good as his dad.”
Whereas Monty was outgoing and charismatic, Tex is more reserved. With the exception of a stint on the Board of Regents at his beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, Tex has been content to work behind the scenes. Monty played golf with the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott. Tex has confined his golfing to Shady Oaks Country Club, where he was a founding member when the club opened in 1958. He was a close friend to the late Ben Hogan and served as the executor of Hogan’s estate when the golf legend died in 1997.
Tex may well be remembered most for the dramatic testimony he gave before a U.S. Senate Committee in 1998 detailing the Internal Revenue Service raid on the Moncrief offices at 950 Commerce St. four years earlier.
“In my imagination, federal raids were always confined to Mafia bosses and drug lords,” Moncrief, then 78, told the Senate Finance Committee. “If you had told me that 64 IRS agents would storm my office, with sidearms holstered and boot heels trampling my civil rights and my business reputation, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
The IRS, bolstered with information from a former accountant who sought a $25 million IRS bounty, sought $300 million in back taxes.
Characteristically, the Moncriefs fought back.
Ultimately the family’s settlement of $23 million was less than a tenth of what the IRS had demanded. The informant didn’t get the bounty, and Tex’s testimony was credited by The New York Times with putting momentum behind a reform bill that put restraints on IRS investigative and enforcement practices.
The IRS case brought into the open the estrangement of Tex’s nephew, Michael Moncrief, from the rest of the clan. Mike Moncrief, now mayor of Fort Worth, traces his family tie to his grandfather, Farrell Trapp, who was the pumper on the Gregg County well in 1931. Through a series of divorces, remarriages and an adoption, Michael Trapp became Mike Moncrief, but he has confined himself to politics and has not been involved in the family’s oil and gas business.
The Moncriefs’ battle with the IRS helped reinforce the family’s image as tough, hard folks who are not to be messed with. The willingness of the Moncriefs to challenge powers larger than themselves wasn’t new.
In the early 1950s, Monty successfully took on Humble Oil, the precursor to today’s Exxon Mobil Corp. and then the largest oil and gas producer in Texas, before the Texas Railroad Commission over how the Scurry Field was to be divided. Many independents were afraid to take on a big major. Not the Moncriefs.
Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly, longtime counsel to the Moncriefs, says that tenacity has always been a Moncrief trait going back to Monty.
“Mr. Monty [the moniker everybody gave the founding wildcatter] was always a tenacious man,” Kelly recalls. “He’d get onto something, and he wouldn’t let go until it was carried to a successful conclusion.”
Within a year of Moncrief’s 1931 strike in Gregg County, East Texas was producing five times total U.S. consumption. Not surprisingly, the price of oil plunged from the profitable $1 per barrel in 1930 to less than 10 cents a barrel. Desperate oil producers stole oil from one another to try to stay in business. East Texas experienced a last burst of frontier lawlessness, requiring the Texas Rangers to keep order. Meanwhile politicians in Austin and Washington wrangled a system of production controls, called “proration,” that the Texas Railroad Commission used for decades to control the oil industry.
East Texas was geologically unique among the great Texas oil fields. In the other Texas fields, the pressure that pushed the oil to the surface came from natural gas. In East Texas, the pressure came from the region’s vast supply of underground water. So while the indiscriminate loss of natural gas often caused Texas’ other early big fields to play out after a few years, East Texas’ “water drive” field produced for decades.
Texas oil historian Dr. Roger Olien, author of the authoritative Oil in Texas — The Gusher Age published in 2002, says “Monty Moncrief certainly belongs in anybody’s Top Ten list of the greatest of all Texas wildcatters. There were a lot of wildcatters who hit one big well or field. Monty Moncrief hit several.”
Two years before Monty’s death in 1986, a television crew took him and Tex to the original well site in Gregg County. Now in a subdivision of the growing city of Longview, the well site is accompanied by a historic marker.
“Dad always said that the first well in East Texas was the granddaddy of them all,” Tex recalls.
On that day in Longview, Monty was once again the venturesome wildcatter. Tex recalls the scene.
“He spotted the wellhead and went over to it, knelt down and gave it a kiss,” Tex says. “Dad looked at the well again and said ‘You sure did well for us.'”
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