Big Lake News
by Mike Cox
could always tell when a man packed a concealed pistol. That ability, acquired
as a youth in the early 1900s when his father was a deputy sheriff and jailer
in Runnels County, served him well as a newspaperman back when Texas
was a lot less tame than today.|
His name was L.A. Wilke.
spring of 1915, Granddad was a 17-year-old reporter on the old San Angelo Sun.
He wrote the newspaper’s “Personal” column, the more names the better. That meant
meeting the passenger trains when they rolled in and hanging around hotel lobbies.
Granddad was checking the guest register at the Landon Hotel when he noticed
a nice-looking man wearing a broad brim, flat-topped hat and boots strolling across
“I could tell he was wearing a gun,” Granddad later wrote,
“so I tied into him. He told me his name was Henry Japson and he was sheriff of
Reagan County. We sat there in the lobby quite a while. He asked me why I didn’t
go to Big Lake and start
a paper. Said there was a lot of legal printing…which would pay a paper out in
a few months.”
Since the Sun was so far behind in its pay that it was
giving Granddad fountain pens in lieu of a salary, the proposition of being a
newspaper publisher in a county seat town sounded pretty appealing. Especially
if you could make some money at it.
When Granddad told the sheriff he
didn’t have the cash to buy a printing press and type, Japson said his son was
a banker in Big Lake
and might loan him the money. As soon as he could, Granddad rode the Orient to
Big Lake and got a $500
loan. Then he went to Dallas, bought
the equipment he would need, and had it shipped to Big
November 1915, Granddad came out with the first issue of the Big Lake News, a
weekly. (The News was the third paper founded in Reagan County, preceded by the
Stiles Journal and the Big Lake Crony.)
Granddad’s biggest scoop in Big
Lake wasn’t taken seriously for eight years.
At some point, dutifully
checking the passengers who arrived at the Orient depot and registered at the
hotel owned by the Nairn brothers, Granddad learned that a geologist had come
to town. When Granddad approached him to see what brought him to Reagan County,
the visitor said that someday Big
Lake would be in the middle of a vast oilfield. They talked long enough for
Granddad to get enough information for a page-one story.
Back then, West
Texas was cattle country. If you wanted oil, you drilled up around Wichita
Falls or down on the coast where the giant Spindletop
well had come in 14 years earlier. No one believed the geologist’s prediction,
assuming anyone even remembered it, until the Santa Rita No. 1 blew in on May
Of course, by that time, Granddad had long since given up on
making any money as a newspaper owner in Big
Lake and had sold the News, which was absorbed by the Big Lake Wildcat when
it was founded in 1925. If Granddad had only hung in as publisher of the News
for another eight years, he might have gotten rich when the oil boom his newspaper
had predicted in 1915 finally came.
Granddad even got a second chance at wealth in Big
In 1924, by this time editor of a newspaper in Fort
Worth called The Texas Oil World, he returned to booming Big
“I camped out with Fletcher Holt, the well driller,” Granddad
wrote. “I was covering the oil fields and the paper’s publisher was drilling an
oil well there. He gave me stock in lieu of money, but I sold the stock to buy
groceries and then the well came in and made some people rich.”
stayed in the newspaper business until the late 1930s, finally moving into chamber
of commerce work and later, full-time freelance writing. He wrote me a long letter
about his Big Lake experiences in 1967 when I was just starting out as a reporter
for the San Angelo Standard-Times.
By then, the days of a person making
a fortune in the oil business without any startup capital were pretty much a thing
of the past. Still, I got a pretty good inheritance --a wealth of good stories
from my Granddad.
© Mike Cox
28, 2010 column
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