In Kansas in 1890 Charles Rittersbacher and Horace Greeley Johnston organized a water-well-drilling business that they named the American Well and Prospecting Company. In 1894 they contracted with the Corsicana Water Development Company for three water wells in Corsicana, Texas. Work began on the first well in June at a site on South Twelfth Street, a few blocks from the business district. At a depth of 1,035 feet they struck oil and thus opened the state's first commercial oilfield. By 1900 the Corsicana oilfield was producing more than 800,000 barrels of crude annually and had the first refinery west of the Mississippi River.
Although they continued drilling some wells, Rittersbacher and Johnston soon concentrated primarily on repairing drilling rigs and other equipment. They had opened a small shop in Corsicana to repair their own equipment, but meeting demands for repairs from other drillers became a full-time endeavor. About 1900 Rittersbacher and Johnston purchased patent rights for hydraulic rotary drilling equipment from M. C. and C. E. Baker, brothers who had pioneered in that field. From that time the American Well and Prospecting Company began manufacturing and distributing oilfield equipment under the trade name Gumbo Buster. A rig manufactured by American Well and Prospecting and operated by the Hamill brothers of Corsicana was used to drill the A. F. Lucas well at Spindletop in 1901, thus ushering in the petroleum industry on the Texas Gulf Coast (see SPINDLETOP OILFIELD). Eventually Gumbo Buster equipment was used in every major oilfield in the world.
With the outbreak of World War II, American Well and Prospecting, like many other industries, converted its operations to the production of war-related materials. Among the items manufactured by the company were 1,000-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs and 240-millimeter shells. The plant operated around the clock and employed 1,000 people during peak wartime production.
American Well and Prospecting was a family-controlled operation for the first several decades of its existence. Johnston served as president until his death in 1930. Rittersbacher died in 1919, but his sons, Elmer and Edgar, held management positions in the company, as did Eliot Johnston and Lowell Estes, son and son-in-law of Johnston. On June 30, 1944, Bethlehem Steel of Pennsylvania purchased all the outstanding stock and assets of American Well and Prospecting Company. At the conclusion of the war Bethlehem resumed production of oilfield equipment at the Corsicana plant. Increased competition in the business of manufacturing oilfield equipment and hard times in the petroleum industry forced Bethlehem to close the plant in 1959.
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Walter Rundell, Jr., Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866–1936 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977). Tommy Stringer, "American Well and Prospecting Company," East Texas Historical Journal 22 (1984).
Oil and Gas Industry
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Tommy W. Stringer,
“American Well and Prospecting Company,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 25, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
November 1, 1994