Disclaimer: This post is long with reading required, so if it's not your thing, move along, nothing to see here. Otherwise, enjoy.
In the mid 1890s, The oil rights to the Osage fields in Oklahoma belonged to the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company, but they had done little to develope it. Roads and transportation were non existent, oil prices were depressed, so no real wells were brought in until after the turn of the century. Though oil was found, the first commercial oil well in Oklahoma was the Nellie Johnston #1 near Bartlesville, expansion was slow until an oil pipeline was laid from Bartlesville to Neodosho, Kansas in 1904, dropping shipping costs by 40 percent. This was follow by other companies acquiring subleases and within a year, 300 new wells were in production. A replica of the Nellie Johnston well stands in Bartlesville.
The discoveries continued all over the Osage. In 1920, Marland Oil discovered the first well near Burbank, in what would become the Burbank field. Marland's discovery triggered a rush to the area. While drilling the third well, the crew stopped for a break, until they realized the well was producing a barrel of oil a minute, even with the equipment still in the hole. There was immediate panic as they had nothing to store that much oil, so they rigged up large wooden water tank to hold the oil and telegraphed Tulsa for help. A crew was dispatched immediately and arrived that evening, working through the night to build a pipeline to a larger storage area a few miles away. This single well went on to produce 2500 barrels a day at its peak.
As the strikes continued, existing towns in the area experienced rapid growth, and new "towns" sprung up. These towns were really a collection of shacks and tents built in the oil field. As more an more workers arrived, businesses began to follow. One of the most infamous the these towns was Whizbang, located a few miles northeast of Burbank in the heart of the oil field.
Whizbang shortly after the discovery of the field.
The post service thought the name Whizbang was undignified for a town and when the post office was officially opened on December 31s, 1921, they changed the name to Denoya after a prominent Osage Indian and family in the area. There are several legends concerning where the name of Whizbang came from. The first was the clean version, that it was named after a popular pulp magazine of the era call Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.
However, the other account for the name, and probably the accurate one, was from a notorious madam who operated one of the first brothels to arrive in the oilfield and was known as "Whizbang Red". Basically, the oil field workers would say "Let's head over to Whizbang's." and the name stuck. Regardless, if you wanted mail, your address had to read Denoya.
Whizbang a year after the discovery.
In our modern era, It's difficult to envision what these boom towns where like. To put it in prespective, the Osage field generated more wealth than ALL the gold rushes in the U.S. combined. Like the gold, the oil attracted every kind of person, honest and dishonest. Whizbang was arguably the wildest of the oil boom towns. Robbery, kidnapping, and shootings where common place. More murders where committed in Whizbang than any other place in the state during it's peak and it was not uncommon to find a body in the street when the sun came up. Lawmen where underpaid and overworked and and in many cases, as corrupt as the criminals they were hired to apprehend. The law paid little attention to "victimless" crimes, such as prostitution, bootlegging, and gambling. Robbery or "hijacking" as it was called then, was very common, and banks, businesses and people were robbed frequently. Oil field workers were regular targets and robbery at the oil rigs themselves was a common occurrence.
Life in the oil field was hard, especially in the early days. In addition to the crime and corruption, there where shortages of everything. As the field progressed, oil companies put up simple shacks to house workers, but housing was always in demand. The original oil rigs were all constructed of lumber, so any lumber in the area was snatched up, leaving nothing to construct housing.
One gentleman looking to open a restaurant in nearby Webb City, was forced to travel to Big Heart, another oil boom town, that had be destroyed by a tornado. He gathered up the scattered tin and brought it back to build his eatery. Needless to say, accommodations in the early years were somewhat lacking. Garages, storage sheds, chicken coops, attics, and even out houses where converted to housing and the owners made a tidy profit.
Transportation and roads were severely lacking. The mud would get so bad during rains that even the mighty Model T was unable to pass.
Much of the oil field material and transportation was provided by horse and wagon. Because of this, many farmers leased out their draft animals, making more in a month than they could using them on the farm for a year. As the populaton swelled from a few hundred to over ten thousand, clothing became exceptionally scarce, selling as fast as it would arrive. Oil field work was extremely dirty and hard on the clothes, so the workers would take a steam boiler and make their own steam cleaning devices, basically taking the output of a boiler and feeding it into an enclosed container. They would add a cup of coal oil (kerosine) to the boiler and it would clean the grime from the clothes, supposedly very well.
The work was very dangerous, as little or no safety precautions existed, and environmental impacts weren't even considered until the mid 30s. Lack of containers in the early days resulted in oil being stored in open earthen dikes. A common tactic on oil fires was to use a cannon to blow holes in the side of burning oil tanks to release the oil so the blaze could be extinguished.
Lack of doctors, unsanitary conditions, long hours, meant work place injuries and death where common. When the great flu epidemic hit in 1918, it took a hard toll on the oil field. One man wrote of his boyhood days in Whizbang that wagons full of the dead where seen leaving the town every day. Regardless, the work continued and the oil flowed.
Crime continued to be a problem, resulting in many people taking the law into their own hands. One account tells of a remote oil rig that was robbed several times, and with no action from the law, the workers set up a trap for would be hijackers. The next attempted robbery resulted in the hijackers being hung from the oil derrick and the bodies left up for several days as a warning to others. A sheriff finally showed up and removed the bodies. No arrests where made and the rig was never robbed again. There were rumours of captured hijackers being stuffed into the oil well shafts and then drilling through them. Several stories circulated that remains were found in several of the old storage tanks when they were torn down.
In the surrounding vicinity there where several areas that were avoided if at all possible, including Shotgun Crossing, Pistol Hill, and a bridge across Salt Creek connecting Whizbang to the nearby towns of Carter 9 and Shidler. As a car reached the middle of the bridge, hijackers would block both ends and rob the driver, often stealing the car. The old bridge still stands, built in August of 1922.
Special "deputies" where hired by the oil companies and later by the town itself. Probably the most infamous of these was Jose Alvarado, probably the most notorious law officer to serve in an Oklahoma oil field area. His name was actually Bert Bryant, he was a Texan, spoke fluent Spanish, and had served in the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa. During World War I he worked with General Alvarado of Mexico, and in the early 1920s he came northward to the Oklahoma oil fields. Depending on who you talked to, he was either a Robin Hood or a cold-blooded killer. One account says that during a raid on a notorious "boarding house" he seized twenty-five hundred dollars from the woman manager. Later, although he returned the money, he was arrested for stealing it, but was tried and acquitted.
During one of the many fires in Whizbang he was seen shooting a man who was watching the blaze. He later claimed he thought the man was looting, but it was widely known they had both been courting the same woman. He was tried and acquitted.
On another occasion, when a fire started in the post office, Alvarado refused to let the oil companies help extinguish the fire until all postal records were burned. After that, the oil companies refused to help, and an entire business block burned.
Amazingly, while the fire raged, Alvarado had a shootout with a man named Parker, a lawman from the neighboring town of Shidler, reportedly over a woman who owned one of the stores currently on fire. The woman was killed, though accounts conflict on which of the two shot her. Regardless, they turned on each other, with Alvarado being shot in the chest. Alvarado returned fire and hit Parker four times in the body while he was hunting for cover. Alvarado then took cover himself behind a table that had been moved into the street from a burning store, but since his legs were exposed below the tabletop he was shot in the shins, and both his legs were broken. The two men were taken to the same hospital where they recovered, forgot the woman, and became good friends and a few years later were both arrested while robbing a bank together in Texas.
As the limits of the fields were reached, Whizbang settled down somewhat. A central business district developed, a school was built, and lawlessness was brought under control.
Whizbang was built on the boom, and as it came to an end, the town rapidly decreased. As the gas plants began to shut down, jobs went with them. The town was geographically isolated, with no rail service and the main highway was routed through the nearby town of Shidler. The post office closed in September of 1942 and by 1950, the town was all but abandoned. Fire destroyed most of the abandoned business district and only rubble and memories remain.
Walking through the scattered remains of Whizbang, it's hard to believe what had been. The old main street is now a county road that dead ends into a pasture. The town's remains are widely scattered, though you can tell where the old business district had stood. Concrete remains of the old derricks and pipe lines dot the landscape.
A local lady who had lived in the area for the last 9 years pointed out where a couple of buildings had been. She was surprised I was only taking pictures, as all she had ever seen where people with metal detectors. She told me an old man had visited the area about five years previous and said he had been a small boy sitting on the bank steps during one of its robberies. The old bank stood on the corner of this intersection, which was the old main street. No sign of the bank remains.
This was the Adams hotel. It along with most of the business district, burned in the 1940s.
All that remained of the old school was the flag pole.
The ruins covered a large geographic area. You can find some tidbit almost anywhere you went. It was a bit eerie walking through the rubble knowing what had once been there. Few had risen as fast or fallen as hard as Whizbang. Having seen the slow death of many of the other boom towns in the area, maybe it is better to burn out than just fade away.
Re: Whizbang, Oklahoma <Reply # 3 on 6/2/2011 3:16 AM >
As always, awesome work!
1. You seriously need to compile all your explorations and writings into a book on the history of early 20th century rural Oklahoma. Please...there is BOUND to be some sort of historical association that would absolutely LOVE to publish your fine work, and I'd be first in line to buy a copy.
Re: Whizbang, Oklahoma <Reply # 5 on 6/2/2011 9:55 AM >
Posted by seanpmi I agree... this is awesome stuff and should be compiled into a book.
Agreed. You put way too much work into your explorations for it not to be a book. Thanks for the great postings. I thoroughly enjoy reading them Give me poo or give me death. From Antwerp to MSP if it's underground you'll find me there
Re: Whizbang, Oklahoma <Reply # 7 on 6/4/2011 4:51 AM >
You can do print on demand books for pretty cheap - like blurb.com, or mypublisher.com. Then at least you'd have a physical version. Maybe send those samples to historical societies or publishers to see if they'd bite and publish it. just a thought...