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Delta Drilling Company

James Presley General

At its peak in 1981 the Delta Drilling Company, headquartered in Tyler, was one of the largest land-based, private, contract drilling firms in the world. It was founded in Longview on November 17, 1931, by four immigrants and a native Texan. Joseph Zeppa had immigrated from Italy to New York at the age of twelve in 1906 with no English. He rose to executive positions with Arkansas Natural Gas Company and McMillan Petroleum Company. Sam Gold (Simon Goldman), Sam Sklar, and Sam Y. Dorfman, all Jewish refugees from pogroms in czarist Russia, were partners in Louisiana Iron and Supply. Robert Stacy was born in Houston and experienced in sales. The ownership was originally divided into thirds-Zeppa, Dorfman-Gold-Sklar, and Stacy. The triangular Greek letter delta, used in the green company logo, symbolized the three-way ownership. "We formed this company without a dime," Joe Zeppa later recalled. The partners borrowed $22,000 in the depth of the Great Depression to buy two junk drilling rigs and began drilling in the booming East Texas oilfield, one of the few economic bright spots in the entire United States at the time.

Gold died in 1936, and Dorfman and Sklar bought his share. When Stacy sold out in 1941, Zeppa acquired enough of his stock to become the majority stockholder. He held this position for the rest of his life and ran the firm as president and chairman of the board.

In the late 1930s and thereafter Delta branched out from East Texas, with operations in the Illinois basin, the Northeast (especially Pennsylvania and West Virginia), the Rocky Mountains, Louisiana, the Southeast, West Texas, and South Texas. It also accumulated oil and gas production in these regions and held interests in two gas plants, in Ozona and Chapel Hill, Texas. A major step in growth came in 1949 when Delta, under Zeppa's guidance, acquired twenty-two drilling rigs and substantial petroleum reserves from J. C. Hawkins, a colorful but creditor-plagued entrepreneur. The $3 million deal essentially doubled the size and assets of Delta. The Hawkins acquisition, operated as Delta Gulf for the next seven years until the assets were completely absorbed, covered properties in twelve states. Beginning in 1955 Delta operated an offshore drilling company, Delta Marine, in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast, for about twenty years. Although Delta drilled briefly in Nova Scotia, Spain, Libya, Australia, the Philippines, and South West Africa (now Namibia) during the heyday of American overseas oil exploration, its main foreign operations were in Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

Delta achieved a number of distinctions over the years. It became the largest privately owned land-based drilling company in the world. It received publicity throughout the industry in 1972 when it hired Claudine Shapley as "the first lady roughneck in the Western world." It was one of the first companies to hire black drillers in this country.

Zeppa died in 1975 at the age of eighty-four. In 1984 the "accountant who headed West" was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame. His son, Keating V. Zeppa, succeeded him as president and chairman of the board. A period of swift expansion followed in the next several years as the "energy crisis" brought in a petroleum boom. Revenues for 1981 reached a record $205.9 million; the following year reserves were valued at $235.7 million. A large bank debt helped fuel the expansion.

In 1981 the firm "went public" and began selling its stock over the counter. At its peak Delta operated fifty-nine domestic drilling rigs and six foreign onshore rigs. But as an industry-wide economic slump followed the erosion of the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cartel, Delta entered a long trough. In 1984 the company became DeltaUS. The next year it sold its domestic oil and gas production and interests in two gas plants to Kerr-McGee Corporation for $140 million to pay off its bank debt.

In 1985, while Keating Zeppa remained chairman of the board, Donald L. Frankel became president. In 1988 DeltaUS sold 75 percent of its common stock outstanding to P.A.J.W. Corporation, wholly owned by Gordon P. Getty, for $7 million; Getty lent the firm $2.5 million as working capital. The following year Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Zeppa resigned as chairman and director after thirty years with the company. Delta emerged from bankruptcy in 1990, with Getty owning 100 percent of its stock. Delta Drilling Company again became the firm's name. It owned thirty-five land rigs in four regions-East Texas, South Texas, the Louisiana Gulf Coast, and the Appalachian region.

James Presley, Never in Doubt: A History of Delta Drilling Company (Houston: Gulf, 1981). Tyler Morning Telegraph, February 2, 1989, January 13, 1990.


  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Support Industry

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James Presley, “Delta Drilling Company,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 26, 2020,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.