The small town of Cunningham, Kansas lies about 65 miles straight west of Wichita on U.S. Highway 54. It was incorporated in 1887 on the north side of a railroad that had recently been extended beyond that point. Its name came from a surveyor of the railroad, James D. Cunningham, who purchased land there and then donated part of it to the town company. Cunningham was incorporated as a commercial center for farmers and ranchers in that part of south-central Kansas. Hard winter wheat was the main cash crop, while herds of beef and dairy cattle were a close second source of income. This activity characterized the culture of Cunningham into the early years of the 20th century.albrt
That is, until a new industry was introduced to Kansas when, in 1915, oil was discovered in the El Dorado field northeast of Wichita. Petroleum pioneers including A.L. Derby, Jack Vickers and Bill Skelly flocked to the area. Exploration for other petroleum deposits proceeded at a feverish pace. That activity reached Cunningham in 1931. A core drilling program northwest of Cunningham outlined an anticlinal structure extending in a northeast-southwest direction across the Kingman-Pratt county line.
In January of that year, one of those wells found oil and gas in the Lansing Limestone of Pennsylvanian Age at a depth of 3,360 feet. The discovery well was the Skelly Oil Company Frank C. Miles No. 1, two and a half miles northwest of Cunningham.
Additional successful wells proved that this was a significant discovery. It soon acquired the name Cunningham Oil Field.
A Burst of Activity
As drilling continued, three producing zones were determined: dry gas in the Chase and Council Grove Groups of Permian Age, oil and gas liquids in the Lansing Group of Pennsylvanian Age and gas liquids from the Viola, Simpson and Siliceous Lime formations of Ordovician Age. By January 1936, the Permian gas zones were producing about 15,000 mcf per well per day. The Lansing zone was capable of producing from 35 wells an average of 392 barrels of oil per well per day (though proration held the field to 900 barrels per day), and a gas volume on average of 1,675 mcf per well per day. The Ordovician gas zone was producing about 83,000 mcf per well per day.
Anticipating this production, Skelly Oil Company began construction in 1933 of a combination gasoline plant and gas boosting station two miles north of Cunningham on the north side of the Ninnescah River. The plant used a straight oil absorption process to remove casinghead gasoline from the gas liquids and boosted the pressure of the dry gas. Part of that gas was used to re-pressure the oil field, and the rest was sold to a gas pipeline company. The Lansing gas liquids produced about 0.48 gallons of gasoline per mcf; the Ordovician gas liquids about 0.41 gallons per mcf. The casinghead gasoline was piped to a loading rack on the railroad at Cunningham and shipped in tank cars to Skelly’s refinery in El Dorado, Kan., where it was blended to make fuel for automobiles, trucks and airplanes. Oil from the Cunningham Field was initially shipped on tank cars from Cunningham, but in 1934, Skelly Oil Company completed a 52-mile pipeline that took the oil directly to that same refinery.
A Clash of Cultures
All of this activity had a profound effect on the culture of the town. The drilling activity and especially construction of the gasoline plant drew workers from states where the petroleum industry was already flourishing such as Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Great Depression was at its worst so there was no shortage of workers searching for a job. Those workers were mostly single men, and they came with a reputation. Stories of early oil fields are resplendent with tales of men who both work hard and play hard. Cunningham was no different in the mid-1930s. The good farm and ranch folk in Cunningham and the surrounding area were about to get a whole new outlook on life – some good and some bad. The oil activity was a welcome economic boost for the area, but the strangers brought a sense of unease to the culture that had developed over several decades of farming and ranching.
By January 1934, at least 100 men worked on drilling and production crews in the Cunningham Field. Another 100 or so were hard at work constructing the absorption and booster plant on the north side of the Ninnescah River. Additional crews were at work laying pipelines from the field to an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad tank car terminal on the west side of Cunningham.
A Stranger from Oklahoma
One of those strangers that came to help construct the gasoline plant was a man from Stroud, Okla., my father, Albert Ion Harris. Albert grew up in a sharecropper family of six boys and one girl. His father died in January 1933, leaving it mostly up to him to provide for the family. An uncle, his mother’s brother, Merle Pike, was the catalyst that enabled him to do that, as well as to launch a new career. Pike was the superintendent of a Skelly Oil Company refinery near Davenport, Okla. He hired his nephew, as needed, for odd jobs. Albert got his start in the oil business by using mules to haul wagon loads of drip gasoline in 55-gallon drums from well sites to that refinery.
In 1933, when Albert was about 25 years old, his uncle provided a more substantial opportunity. Skelly needed workers for the gasoline plant under construction near Cunningham. Albert arrived that summer, and his life and career soon revolved around the fortunes of the Cunningham community and the nearby oil field.
Farmers Meet Oilfield Workers
Albert soon made friends among his fellow construction workers at the gasoline plant. He had acquired a 1929 Chevrolet Roadster that he used to travel around and commute to work. He found lodging in the home of Ansel Long, a farmer who lived a few miles northwest of Cunningham. Like other young men, he searched for ways to entertain himself in the evenings and days off work. In that time and place, the social life was limited. The farmers mostly kept to themselves, but they did engage in one activity that attracted the attention of oilfield workers: country/western dances. Music was provided with the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and maybe a piano. A popular form of entertainment was to gather in someone’s home, invite the neighbors, play some country/western music and dance the evening away. Sometimes the event would be held in the loft of a hay barn.
Albert had attended such events as a young man in Stroud and had become quite adept at the two-step, the waltz and the square dance. In company with some buddies from the gasoline plant, he began attending some of those dances. It was one of the few opportunities for young men to meet young women, usually farmer’s daughters. Such situations always carry the potential of trouble if one young man feels slighted by another over the attentions of a young woman. But at these dances, if one of those young men was a farmer, and the other an oilfield worker, that potential was greatly increased. Adding to that threat was the invariable presence of a bottle of moonshine whiskey that got passed around among the men when they went to relieve themselves or smoke cigarettes. The result was a not-infrequent display of fisticuffs between farmers and oilfield workers. These displays typically lasted for less than a minute, and rarely did anyone get seriously hurt. It was mostly a matter of saving face.
It was at such an event that my father met my mother, Carmen. Her father, Ping Waters, owned a farm half a mile east of Ansel Long’s place. He was a fiddle player, organized dances in his home, and also served as a caller for square dances, so it was natural that they would meet. I remember watching Mom and Dad a few years later enjoy with gusto the movements of a fast-paced square dance. I think Dad’s dancing abilities helped assuage the suspicion of Mom’s family about his oilfield background.
The combination gasoline plant and booster station was completed and put into operation by Skelly on April 24, 1934. Five days later, Mom and Dad were married at a Baptist preacher’s home in Kingman, Kan. It was a double wedding, as one of Albert’s construction buddies, George Rhine, married Carmen’s cousin Vaughn Park in the same ceremony. The announcement in the April 30, 1934 issue of the Cunningham Clipper newspaper read: “The grooms Mr. Rhine and Mr. Harris have been employed in the oil field here for the past six months, and are highly esteemed by all who know them.”
The Cunningham Oil Field Becomes Famous
By 1937, the Cunningham Field had gained sufficient attention to merit an article in the April issue of the AAPG Bulletin that year, in an article entitled, “Cunningham Field, Kingman and Pratt Counties, Kansas,” by Rutledge and Bryant. The article provides a good discussion of the geology and production practices of the field.
In January 1936, a repressuring program was started in the field. Gas from the Viola formation was used to maintain bottom-hole pressures in the Lansing Limestone oil zone. A December 1939 report by the Kansas Corporation Commission states that “there has been absolutely no wastage of gas in this field. It is a model field for production practices.”
By 1940, the area around the gasoline plant had become a community of its own. Though never incorporated, it acquired the name “Skellyville.” Offices for the Skelly production and pipeline departments were located there. A restaurant and about 20 homes were built in Skellyville, some owned by the company and others privately. About 30 men were employed full time after the plant settled into operation. During the years of World War II, the plant and the Cunningham Oil Field were major contributors to the war effort.
Albert Establishes Oilfield Credentials
After getting married, Mom and Dad spent about a year in California where my older brother Gale was born, but were drawn back to Cunningham to be near Carmen’s family and the activity surrounding Cunningham Field. By the time I arrived in 1937, they had established a home in Cunningham and Dad was working odd jobs in the oil field and at the gasoline plant.
The War forced us to temporarily move away from Cunningham, but it was Dad’s experience in the Field and its associated gasoline plant that enabled him to find suitable employment. He was hired to manage similar gasoline plants in Nickerson and Zenith, Kan. It was considered a reserved occupation, critical to the war effort, so he was exempted from the military draft.
By 1946, we were back in Cunningham. Dad had accepted a job as a pumper with Drillers Gas Company. That company had drilled several oil and gas wells in the southwestern portion of Cunningham Field in Pratt County. These wells were lower on the anticlinal structure than the early wells in Kingman County. They all had pumpjacks to lift the oil. His job was to keep the wells pumping, maintain production records and make sure the associated equipment, such as tanks, pipelines and oil/water separators were in good working order. He was also responsible for monitoring several gas wells in Barber and Comanche Counties, Kan. The company provided a house on the Gerber Lease for our family. The Gerber No. 1 well was about 100 yards west of our house, and sweet Viola gas from the well provided heat for the house and fuel for the kitchen stove. That gas also provided power to the engines of the pumpjacks.
The Lease House
My brothers and I think of this house on the Gerber Lease as our boyhood home. My younger brother Layne was born there. We still refer to it as “The Lease House.” Whenever possible, we followed Dad around as he made his daily checks on the oil wells or completed some repair on a pipeline or storage tank. We soon became accustomed to the sweet odor of petroleum gas and to the steady rumble of the engines running the pumpjacks. We completed our elementary education at the Tully School, a nearby one-room country schoolhouse, then entered high school in Cunningham.
The petroleum industry and its workers had become fully assimilated into the Cunningham community. A local farmer, Ralph Raney, formed a side business, Raney’s Trucking Service, which had as its primary occupation moving drilling rigs from one location to another. In the years after the War, my father, his brother Ernest, my brothers Gale and Layne and I all worked at various times for Mr. Raney moving drilling rigs.
The Decline of an Oil Field
By the early 1950s, wells in the Cunningham Field were beginning to show signs of depletion. By about 1950, the company Dad worked for changed its name to Drillers Production Company and directed him to try some secondary recovery techniques on the wells he monitored. Water flooding was one effort: Dad inserted a garden hose into the casing of some of his wells, including Gerber No. 1, and let the water flow for several hours. Acidizing was another technique: Dad would set up a barrel of a dark heavy liquid next to some of the wellheads and let it drip down into the limestone and dolomite formations.
These efforts may have coaxed a few more barrels of oil out of the formations, but in 1953, the company informed Dad that the wells he monitored would be shut down and plugged. He would have to find other employment.
The oil and gas reserves in the Cunningham Field were mostly depleted by the late 1950s. Most of the wells were plugged and abandoned. In 1958, the gasoline plant was closed and later dismantled. The community of Skellyville disappeared. The reservoir of subsurface limestone formations had given up its oil and gas, but was to be resurrected in later years.
A New Life for a Depleted Oilfield
In 1978, Northern Natural Gas Company opened a natural gas storage facility using the Ordovician Viola and Simpson formations in the reservoir that had been the Cunningham Oil and Gas Field. Many of the old wells that had been plugged were drilled out and reconstituted as gas injection and withdrawal wells. Some of these were wells that my father had monitored as a pumper from 1946 to 1953, including Gerber No. 1.
By 2004 the company had developed 53 injection or withdrawal wells and 18 pressure control wells. The storage reservoir which underlies 40,320 acres in Pratt and Kingman Counties is authorized to store 62 billion cubic feet of gas under a maximum pressure of 1600 psig.
Post Oil-Field History
The loss of oil and gas production was a blow to the economy of Cunningham, but the town revived itself as the education center of western Kingman County. The elementary and high schools of many surrounding communities closed, and facilities were established in Cunningham to serve them all. It is probable that its prominence in the petroleum industry drew them to that town.
Drillers Production Company offered Dad a similar position in a small western Kansas town in 1953, but he declined. I remember him saying more than once, “I have worked for the other fellow long enough, now I want to work for myself.”
Using funds he had saved from his work in the petroleum industry, he purchased a 240-acre farm southeast of Cunningham and moved us there. By 1960, he had experienced several successful harvests of hard winter wheat and developed a herd of beef and dairy cattle. The transition from his origin in a hardscrabble sharecropper family must have given him a good feeling. Unfortunately, his health began to fail him, and he died at age 58 in 1966.
The small wellheads in the gas storage field are still there. On occasional visits to the area as I drive past the wells my father once monitored, I am reminded of the many times I had been with him at those locations.