Big Lake Oilfield, located in the southwest corner of Reagan County on University of Texas land, opened the Permian Basin to oil production and endowed the Permanent University Fund with $4 million by 1926, the year of its peak production. The field grew from a large tract oil promotion attempted by Reagan County lawyer Rupert P. Ricker. In January 1919, when West Texas was considered oil-barren, Ricker initiated mineral leasing on university lands by filing on 431,360 acres in Reagan, Upton, Irion, and Crockett counties. He tried selling leases from the tract to raise the filing fee of $43,136, due the General Land Office in thirty days, but had no luck promoting wildcat leases located hundreds of miles from known oil production. Just before the deadline, he sold his preliminary leases for $2,500 to an old army friend, Frank T. Pickrell, of El Paso.
The ambitious, energetic Pickrell and his partner, Haymon Krupp, a prosperous El Paso merchant, also attempted unsuccessfully to sell leases from the tract, then determined to develop the acreage themselves. Krupp organized Texon Oil and Land Company and invited several New York investors to join him in forming a Delaware corporation in April 1919. To help fund the drilling program, the new corporation divided its acreage into tracts ("groups") of 10,240 acres and offered certificates of interest for sale in Group No. 1. For $200 the investor was promised a .0004882 percent undivided interest in the sixteen-section block. After completion of the first oil test on Group No. 1, however, Texon converted each certificate of interest to stock in the newly formed Group No. 1 Oil Corporation, rather than allowing the investors to collect the more profitable overriding royalty interest.
The first oil test drilled on Group No. 1, called Santa Rita No. 1 (seeSANTA RITA OIL WELL) was spudded on August 17, 1921. Driller Carl Cromwell and various tool dressers worked on the cable tool rig for 646 days, drilling on average only 4.7 feet per day. On May 25, 1923, the crew drilled into the "Big Lime" near 3,050 feet and discovered gas bubbles rising from the casinghead. Cromwell and toolie Dee Locklin shut down the well to keep reports tight while they leased surrounding acreage for themselves.
Early on May 28, with no further drilling, the well blew in. Oil sprayed over the derrick and flowed intermittently until it was controlled at the end of June. Although Texon had an oil well, however, the company had neither drilling capital to prove the extent of the field nor oil-experienced management to direct its drilling program. Pickrell tried unsuccessfully to find a company to buy part of the field. Major companies were uninterested because they owned flush production near their coastal refineries, and production from isolated West Texas presented a 500-mile transportation obstacle. But in the fall of 1923 Pickrell found an investor.
On October 5, 1923, Pickrell, representing Texon management, contracted with an agent of Michael L. Benedum, a successful Pittsburgh independent oilman. Pickrell transferred blocks 1, 2, and 9, Reagan County (including the Santa Rita No. 1 and two drilling offsets), to Benedum for $200,000 and one-fourth interest in a new company–Big Lake Oil. Benedum and his friends organized Plymouth Oil Company on October 19, 1923, for oil exploration in West Texas and as a parent company for Big Lake Oil, which would drill the contracted Texon leases.
When the first four wells proved unproductive and Big Lake's drilling fund was depleted, Benedum persevered in the field's development. He lent the company $800,000 to continue drilling, and his determination was rewarded. The No. 9 well's initial daily production was 1,400 barrels, on June 24, 1924. The No. 10 came in with 1,840 barrels on July 11. But the No. 11, which began producing 3,600 barrels daily on July 31, proved the field's productivity.
The Big Lake field, which covers an area of about 4½ square miles, produced oil and gas from two main horizons. Its shallow field tapped the Big Lime (later designated San Andrés) of the Upper Permian at about 3,000 feet, and its deeper field drew from the Ellenburger Lime of the Ordovician at depths between 8,200 and 8,800 feet. The deeper field was discovered on December 1, 1928, when Group No. 1 Oil Corporation's University 1-B was extended to 8,525 feet and became the world's deepest well. By the fall of 1929 University 1-B's daily production was nearly 3,000 barrels of oil and more than 25.6 million cubic feet of gas. The significance of University 1-B's discovery, like that of Santa Rita No. 1, was the evidence offered of vast oil and gas reserves in West Texas from both shallow and deep horizons.
In February 1929, shortly after University 1-B was discovered, Texon's management sold controlling interest in the field to Marland Oil Company for $9.5 million. On June 18, 1929, Marland merged with Continental Oil Company. In 1962 Plymouth Oil, along with its subsidiary Big Lake Oil, sold out to Marathon Oil Company. Continental and Marathon currently operate the original field; they reported fourteen wells, 495,432 barrels of oil, and 411,103 million cubic feet of gas for 1986.
Secondary recovery in Big Lake field employed two methods. Gas from lower horizons was injected into the upper field in the 1930s. Continental injected salt water into the San Andrés at 2,900 feet in 1965 and 1972.
What began as a large-tract lease promotion by Ricker and continued as a wildcat-drilling promotion under Pickrell and Krupp became a large and profitable oilfield under Benedum. The cumulative production for the field at the beginning of 1987 was 129,089,783 barrels of oil and 10,246,580 million cubic feet of gas. From Big Lake field, oil exploration spread into other areas of the Permian Basin, which became one of the largest oil-producing regions of Texas and of the United States.
Nora Locklin, "Santa Rita: An Eyewitness to a Great Discovery," Permian Historical Annual 24 (1984). Samuel D. Myres, The Permian Basin: Petroleum Empire of the Southwest (2 vols., El Paso: Permian, 1973, 1977). David F. Prindle, "Oil and the Permanent University Fund: The Early Years," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 86 (October 1982). Crawford K. Stillwagon, Rope Chokers (Houston: Rein, 1945).
Oil and Gas Industry
Oil Fields and Wells
Texas in the 1920s
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Julia Cauble Smith,
“Big Lake Oilfield,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 20, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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