the exception of offshore crews, modern Texas oil industry workers seldom have
far to drive when they get hungry. All varieties of junk food and even healthy
fare are readily available at any number of fast food franchises across the state,
not to mention convenience stores and locally owned markets and eateries.
But at the height of the 1920s petroleum boom, a time of wooden derricks and iron
men, when drilling depended on brawn and intuition rather than automation and
computers, roughnecks and others in the oil patch could not take the availability
of groceries for granted. Especially scarce was “woman cooking,” then a popular
term for good food not prepared by calloused male hands with no shortage of black
crude under their fingernails.
Journalist Sam Ashburn, who had a long
career with the San Angelo Standard-Times, gave state-wide publicity to a woman
he considered the best cook in West Texas’s
storied Yates Field – Mrs. R.L. Rice. (Regrettably for posterity, back in those
days reporters seldom gave a woman’s first or maiden name.)
wife of a driller, Mrs. Rice ran one of nine boarding houses owned and operated
by the Illinois Pipeline Co., then a major player in the Yates Field and elsewhere
Texas and New Mexico.
Given the remoteness of its areas of operation, Illinois Pipeline furnished a
structure, fuel, electricity and ice to vendors who in turn managed the boarding
houses and made a living off the profits.
The accommodation Mrs. Rice
operated fed employees and occasional visitors at the Mid-Kansas Oil Co.’s Camp
No. 2 in Pecos County. Today it is less than a ghost town, with no trace remaining.
“The boarding house isn’t a dirty establishment with chairs marked by the greasy
hands of the working man,” Ashburn wrote. “It is clean and attractive with chairs
for the men to sit in, pegs on which to hang their hats, large tables to hold
the food and lace curtains on the windows.”
For most oilfield men, however,
the quality of the food that went on the table trumped ambiance. And when it came
to cooking, Mrs. Rice did not disappoint.
“The food is home cooked and with the seasoning that gives it the best of taste,”
Ashburn reported. “A gourmand would be delighted with the menu at a noonday meal
while on Sunday he would be overwhelmed by his inability to do the meal justice
and realize that as a consumer of food he is the first letter in failure and the
last letter in incompetence.”
120 men ate at the boarding house every day. Not only did Mrs. Rice cook breakfast,
lunch and supper, she had food ready for men who worked at night and slept by
“Thirty minutes in this boarding house would enable a man to live without food
for a week,” Ashburn rhapsodized.
Since roughnecks and drillers made more
money than roustabouts and other oilfield denizens, some boarding houses charged
them 25 cents more per meal. Mrs. Rice, however, sold meals for a set price regardless
of how much a man earned. Not only that, if a man found himself short of cash
between paydays, Mrs. Rice let him eat for free until he could pay her back.
Ashburn did not say how much Mrs. Rice charged per plate, he did describe a typical
noon menu: “Meat and gravy, dressing, onions, squash, sweet potatoes and Irish
potatoes, corn on the cob, beans and greens, fresh tomatoes, turnips…potato salad,
light bread (white bread) and corn bread.”
either washed down with iced tea or a glass of sweet milk (as opposed to buttermilk)
was a piece of pie “as big as the Russian army.”
those dishes got carried to the tables by a trio of waitresses Ashburn described
as “dainty,” young women “without the tons of paint that load down the young faces
of some girl servitors.” Listing them as Irene Lauderdale, Ruby Clendennen and
Dixie Davis, he said they worked on salary and declined tips.
treated her customers well, and that in turn paid off for her. Ashburn said she
had been able to buy a house in Artesia, NM and two cars with her boarding house
While the long-lived Yates Field remains one of the world’s
most productive oil pools, the boom eventually faded and the pipeline company
shut down its boarding houses. What became of Mrs. Rice remains to be determined,
but her former customers doubtless fondly remembered the generous table she set.
© Mike Cox
- April 10, 2013 column
with a Past"
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