They Came, They Saw, They Started Something Special

The Birth of AAPG

From around the world, and often from different stations in life, they all joined together to turn a vision into reality.

Miraculous? Perhaps, but despite varied backgrounds and the different courses they would later take, these men had much in common.

They were for the most part young, middle class men, many of them still in their 20s, educated at Midwestern or Eastern colleges.

They poured into Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Mexico by the hundreds.

They were infused with excitement over the budding science of petroleum geology, and the romance of pioneering jobs in an area that was still something of a frontier.

They were about to become the founders of American Association of Petroleum Geologists. The late Robert H. Dott Sr., former executive director of AAPG, and before his death in 1988 one of the Association’s best sources of historical information – remembered those early days.

“The future was all ahead of us then – the future of finding reserves,” he recalled in a 1985 interview. “We were interested in geology and in the excitement and romance of the job. They were good jobs with some excitement and some physical dangers. Some of the jobs and their working and living conditions were comparable to those of the early railroad location engineers.”

Front Page News

“Geologists Meet in Tulsa Today,” read the front-page headline in the Tulsa Daily World on Feb. 9, 1917. The brief story reported that geologists from “every school and firm in the state” and from surrounding states would convene at the Hotel Tulsa for two days of lectures and technical paper presentations and for an evening social event. Another brief story revealed that 25 students from the University of Oklahoma in Norman would “take a special car to the meeting.”

That wasn’t the biggest news in the World that morning.

Instead, the big stories were devoted to preparations for America’s impending entry into World War I, and to Germany’s submarine torpedo attacks against British and American ships. “Still No Cause to Declare War,” intoned the major headline. The United States formally declared war on Germany less than two months later, on April 6.

On the home front, 45 state legislatures had ratified the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, meaning the country was about to go dry. The National League Boston Braves were making plans to call up minor leaguers if a threatened players’ strike occurred (it didn’t), and American League president Ben Johnson announced that players wishing to join the military service would receive immediate releases.

“Contracts will not stand in the way of those who wish to fight in defense of their country,” Johnson said.

And at the Majestic Theater in downtown Tulsa, the touring play “The House Built Upon Sand,” starring Lillian Gish, answered the question, “Should a woman who is used to luxurious ease be compelled to give it all up because of her husband’s station in life?”

It was an exciting time for the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, and for geology. Tulsa had become an oil center, due largely to discovery of the nearby Glenn Pool and Cushing fields years before. A year and a half earlier, in June 1915, the federal government, through an agreement between the Department of the Interior and the Osage Nation, opened Osage lands northwest of Tulsa to the granting of oil leases.

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From around the world, and often from different stations in life, they all joined together to turn a vision into reality.

Miraculous? Perhaps, but despite varied backgrounds and the different courses they would later take, these men had much in common.

They were for the most part young, middle class men, many of them still in their 20s, educated at Midwestern or Eastern colleges.

They poured into Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Mexico by the hundreds.

They were infused with excitement over the budding science of petroleum geology, and the romance of pioneering jobs in an area that was still something of a frontier.

They were about to become the founders of American Association of Petroleum Geologists. The late Robert H. Dott Sr., former executive director of AAPG, and before his death in 1988 one of the Association’s best sources of historical information – remembered those early days.

“The future was all ahead of us then – the future of finding reserves,” he recalled in a 1985 interview. “We were interested in geology and in the excitement and romance of the job. They were good jobs with some excitement and some physical dangers. Some of the jobs and their working and living conditions were comparable to those of the early railroad location engineers.”

Front Page News

“Geologists Meet in Tulsa Today,” read the front-page headline in the Tulsa Daily World on Feb. 9, 1917. The brief story reported that geologists from “every school and firm in the state” and from surrounding states would convene at the Hotel Tulsa for two days of lectures and technical paper presentations and for an evening social event. Another brief story revealed that 25 students from the University of Oklahoma in Norman would “take a special car to the meeting.”

That wasn’t the biggest news in the World that morning.

Instead, the big stories were devoted to preparations for America’s impending entry into World War I, and to Germany’s submarine torpedo attacks against British and American ships. “Still No Cause to Declare War,” intoned the major headline. The United States formally declared war on Germany less than two months later, on April 6.

On the home front, 45 state legislatures had ratified the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, meaning the country was about to go dry. The National League Boston Braves were making plans to call up minor leaguers if a threatened players’ strike occurred (it didn’t), and American League president Ben Johnson announced that players wishing to join the military service would receive immediate releases.

“Contracts will not stand in the way of those who wish to fight in defense of their country,” Johnson said.

And at the Majestic Theater in downtown Tulsa, the touring play “The House Built Upon Sand,” starring Lillian Gish, answered the question, “Should a woman who is used to luxurious ease be compelled to give it all up because of her husband’s station in life?”

It was an exciting time for the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, and for geology. Tulsa had become an oil center, due largely to discovery of the nearby Glenn Pool and Cushing fields years before. A year and a half earlier, in June 1915, the federal government, through an agreement between the Department of the Interior and the Osage Nation, opened Osage lands northwest of Tulsa to the granting of oil leases.

Geology had only recently proven itself as a valuable tool for finding oil, and it would prove to be particularly valuable in the Osage.

Dott recalled geologists pouring into Tulsa and the surrounding territory, to places like Bartlesville, Pawhuska, Sapulpa, Ponca City, Okmulgee and southern Kansas, many of them recruited by oil companies right off college campuses – before graduation.

AAPG quickly grew in numbers and branched out geographically. Shown here, the 1923 meeting in Shreveport, La.
AAPG quickly grew in numbers and branched out geographically. Shown here, the 1923 meeting in Shreveport, La.

“The use of geology brought a lot of geologists here to Tulsa,” Dott said. “They liked to talk and compare notes, even though the industry as a whole was very secretive.”

Some were college-educated geologists. Some were civil engineers or surveyors, Dott said, smart enough to apply their skills to the search for and mapping of indications of the occurrences of oil and gas structures. Some were hard-knocks graduates who learned their trade in the oil fields.

And some were flimflam men.

“There were lots of doodlebugs of different kinds,” Dott recalled. “Someone found a psychic who claimed he could divine oil beneath the surface.”

James H. Gardner, a founding member of the AAPG, told at an early meeting of encountering a man who claimed he became nauseated every time he walked across an undiscovered oil field.

“Gardner laughed and said he sometimes became nauseated when he didn’t discover oil,” Dott said, “but never when he hit a producer.”

The desire to compare notes and share their theories – and to weed out the con men and flimflammers – were among the reasons the young geologists met at the Hotel Tulsa that cold February morning to launch their new organization.

Proof Positive

Everett Carpenter, who was 33 years old at the time of the 1917 meeting, was one of the men responsible for geology’s growing reputation.

Carpenter became intrigued with the anticlinal theory of osil and gas accumulation while he was a student at the University of Oklahoma. He spent his summers working for the Oklahoma Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey. He worked for the government for a time after his graduation in 1911, then took a job with the Quapaw Gas Co. of Bartlesville. Quapaw was among the companies owned by Henry L. Doherty that later became part of the Cities Service Oil Co.

Carpenter was dispatched to Augusta, Kan., to investigate some wells that had gas showings at shallow depths. He carried about $50 worth of instruments – a Brunton compass, a six-inch hand level and an aneroid barometer. Carpenter applied through channels for an alidade and tripod – instruments then worth about $100 – but he was turned down. He tricked a company purchasing agent into buying them for him, and for his efforts later received a reprimand from his superiors.

Carpenter’s work at Augusta led to the successful discovery of oil and gas in 1914. Reconnaissance studies then were begun of the El Dorado Dome north of Augusta and west of El Dorado, Kan., and a discovery was made there a year later.

Dott said that until the Augusta and El Dorado discoveries, “most of the operators either ignored or ridiculed geology.” But those finds “both turned out to be giant fields, and that gave the oil industry the idea that there was something to this geology.”

Carpenter became the chief geologist of the newly formed Empire Gas and Fuel Co., and his department soon grew to 250 employees. Carpenter and several of the geologists who worked for him were involved in the founding of AAPG – in fact, seven of AAPG’s eventual presidents were his associates.

Carpenter was involved in several other important discoveries over the years, published a number of papers and worked as chief geologist for several firms before his retirement.

He died in Oklahoma City in 1968 at the age of 84.

Gift of Mirth

John Elmer Thomas, who was elected the group’s first president at the founding meeting in 1917, was only 25 at the time, and already chief geologist for Sinclair Oil and Gas Co. Thomas graduated from the University of Chicago in 1912 with a reputation as a brilliant geology student.

Dott remembered Thomas as “a very gregarious fellow” who had a talent for satiric comedy – “kind of a clown,” Dott said.

At an early meeting of the Association, Thomas and another Member, R.B. Whithead, composed and performed a takeoff on a popular song of the day, “My Alice Blue Gown.” Among the stanzas of “When They Strike Oil on My Daddy’s Farm,” was this one:

I’ll buy sister an organ brand new, Get Charlie a buggy or two; Will brace up the barn, be slickers, goldarn, When they strike oil on my daddy’s farm.

Thomas became a well-known consulting geologist and an acknowledged expert on petroleum economics and oil conservation, serving as an appointee to a number of governmental commissions and boards.

From the early 1930s until his death in 1949, except for the war years, he spent much of his time exploring for oil in Europe.

International Influence

In addition to owning the most unwieldy name of all the founders, Willem A.J.M. van Waterschoot van der Gracht, at 44, was one of the old men of the group – and already a distinguished geologist.

Born in Amsterdam, Holland, van der Gracht received a doctor of law at Amsterdam University in 1899 and a degree of mining engineer from the University of Freibert in 1903. He was multilingual. Before coming to the United States, he was director of the Geological Service of the Netherlands, and worked as a consulting mining engineer in the East Indies, Africa, South America, Russia, Romania, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Germany, England and Canada.

At the time of AAPG’s founding meeting in Tulsa, van der Gracht was president of Roxana Petroleum Co., a producing subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell. In the 1920s he was vice president of the Marland Oil Co. of Delaware and president of Marland Oil Co. of Texas, and then research director for the entire Marland organization.

He returned to the Netherlands in 1929, where he wrote and, as a consultant engineer, explored for oil and coal in western Europe. He was director of the Netherlands’ Bureau of Mines from 1932 until his retirement in 1940.

As World War II engulfed his homeland, van der Gracht continued his scientific pursuits, especially “a renewed investigation of the subsurface of the Netherlands.”

In a 1941 letter to friends in the United States, he wrote:

“Scientific work keeps me in reasonably good cheer and detracts one’s mind from too many depressing thoughts. Food gets very scarce, but an old man does not need much; yet one thinks with considerable regret of the fare that we used to give our drilling crews in the oilfield camps! Would it not be nice to have that just for one day?”

AP’s No. 1

One of the roots of AAPG dates to early in 1915, when Everette Lee DeGolyer, chief geologist of the Mexican Eagle Oil Co. at Tampico and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, suggested to the head of OU’s geology department during a visit to Norman that there was a need for a geological society in the southwest.

That led to a pre-organizational meeting in January 1916, of 50 geologists in Norman, and an agreement to hold another meeting during the next winter in Tulsa with the northeastern group.

Not only was DeGolyer instrumental in founding the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists – the forerunner of AAPG – he became probably the best known of all the group’s members.

DeGolyer was to organize and serve as chairman of the Amerada Petroleum Corp. He later left the firm to become a successful independent oil producer and consultant.

Bennett Cerf, the noted author and publisher, once wrote that “Probably the most colorful figure in all Dallas is Everette Lee DeGolyer, pre-eminent geophysicist, key man in oil administration in Washington during the war, and owner of a fabulous library of works on the Southwest.”

A newspaper feature service in 1950 profiled DeGolyer in a series of stories “detailing the rags-to-riches success of a modern-day Horatio Alger in an America which proves still to be the land of opportunity.”

When he died in 1956 at the age of 70, the Associated Press called him “the petroleum industry’s Number 1 geologist.”

DeGolyer was born in a sod house on the Kansas prairie and ultimately selected the location for the famous Potero del Llano No. 4 in the Golden Lane fields of Mexico while still a student. That cemented his fame and launched his career.

In addition to his huge successes in the oil business, DeGolyer was a collector of rare books and served as the chairman of the board of the Saturday Review of Literature.

In 1950, a newspaper reporter asked a friend of DeGolyer’s to explain his accomplishments. “The wellsprings of his curiosity have never dried up,” was the response. DeGolyer himself suggested another epitaph: “He hired good men.”

Comments (1)

Birth of AAPG
It's a beautifully written piece that captures oil geology through its journey from subject of pity to that of envy. DeGolyer's suggested epitaph in the last line reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s saying on getting a job well done, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere....." The rise of new aspirations with advent of oil finds expression in the charming, earthy words of, "When They Strike Oil on My Daddy’s Farm."
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3/20/2017 12:15:30 PM

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