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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    Desdemona

    by Clay Coppedge
    The notorious oil town of Desdemona in Eastland County might or might not have been named for the heroine of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Most accounts have it that it was named for the daughter of an early Justice of the Peace but others say it was named for the Othello character but was spelled as it might have been pronounced in West Texas, as Desdemonia, for many years. The town officially changed the name in 1907 to the correct literary spelling.

    If that unnamed Justice of the Peace knew what was to become of his town, and if the town was indeed named for his daughter, there was certainly a time when he would have disavowed any connection between his daughter and the town. Of all the nastiness that might be found in Texas oil boom towns during the era of discovery in the early 20th Century, Desdemona was reported to be the nastiest. In oil field circles, the town was known simply as Hogtown, which some say was also its original name. Ultimately, the Texas Rangers had to be dispatched there to maintain some semblance of order.
    Desdemona Texas oil well
    John Keith's Desdemona Old Photos

    “Hogtown, for sheer bad manners, was the worst oil boom town in Texas history, according to those myth-making experts who followed oil booms,” A.C. Greene wrote of the town. Tales of Hogtown during the wicked oil days are too lurid for these pages but we can say that its debauchery might be so well remembered because so much of it supposedly took place in broad daylight and sometimes not in private.

    The discovery of oil near Desdemona came as no great surprise to residents of the community. In 1914, the entire town, all 100 people, met at the Hog Creek School and formed the Hog Creek Oil Co. Hog Creek itself often had oil scum on it and the wells gave off the same whiff as the shallow oil wells that had been found at Strawn, but the first four years of drilling yielded nothing.

    Finally, after a new Hog Creek Oil Company was formed, oil was struck on the night of Sept. 2, 1918. The well promptly caught fire and burned for three days before it could be extinguished. Even with this inauspicious beginning, the Desdemona oil field was soon producing 20,000 barrels a day. The producing well was just 100 yards from where the first of several dry holes had been drilled.

    Desdemona even took a walk on what might be widely viewed as the wild side of political life as the Texas socialist movement flourished there; oil made some of those socialists downright rich. The socialists even had their own baseball team, the Desdemona Socialists. The other town team was known as the Desdemona Democrats. We’re not sure how the rivalry turned out on the baseball diamond but in terms of real estate dealings, the Socialists scored a decisive victory.

    Thomas Hickey, one of the country’s leading socialist’s orators and writers, had moved to Texas in 1907 and began publishing “The Rebel,” a socialist newspaper, in Hallettsville. The government suppressed it by not allowing it into the post office system during World War I.

    That was about the point where Hickey and some other socialists did something that most socialists did not do in those days; they invested in the oil fields of Eastland County, including Desdemona. They formed the National Workers Drilling and Production Company and flaunted their politics on the baseball diamond, which wason land owned by an ardent antisocialist by the name of S.E. Snodgrass.

    Though the Socialists and the Democrats apparently had a friendly rivalry on the field, off the field Snodgrass’ antipathy toward the Socialists was more than he could bear; he banned them from playing on the field. The Socialists offered to buy it and Snodgrass said they could have the acre-and-a-half for the exorbitant sum of $50. The Socialists raised the money through the Desdemona Oil News, where Hickey was the advertising manager.

    When oil was discovered near where the pitcher’s mound used to be, that $50 piece of land was worth $40,000. The infield and outfield and beyond soon sprouted oil wells and many of Hickey’s socialist comrades became quite rich.

    Hickey, however, withdrew from the National Workers Drilling and Production Company and moved to a farm near Stamford and continued traveling the state, writing stories about oil workers, for the rest of his life.

    The Desdemona field turned out to be shallow and only about three feet by three feet; it was quickly pumped dry. When the oil was gone, so was the lawless and lascivious element that had followed it. Hogtown became Desdemona again.


    © Clay Coppedge
    January 27, 2012 Column
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