NACOGDOCHES, Tex. — Turn into a narrow dirt lane south of town for your first glimpse of the unpainted pine-board walls and red tin roof on the old Tol Barret House, canopied in the cool shade of towering pines.
A pole fence circles the swept garden, a 19th-Century term for a dirt yard. Old brown bottles border flower beds along the dirt path that leads to the broad front porch, and bricks outline a flower bed in the shape of a Texas star on each side of the yard.
The residence of the man who brought in Texas' first oil well in 1866 does not look like the home of an oil mogul, because mogul he was not. Tol Barret was a pioneer, a forger of dreams on which a great industry grew.
Like many visionaries, Barret has received little attention. Nothing remains of that first oil well. But his home survives, thanks to retired Navy Capt. and Mrs. Charles K. Phillips. They had the house moved 12 miles and restored to look as it did during the half-century Barret lived in it.
The Phillipses live in another historic old house tucked into the forest of their Llano Grande Pine Tree Plantation about a quarter of a mile from the Barret place. They'll meet you at the pole fence.
The Bare Earth
The first question most visitors ask is, "Where's the grass?"
"We've used Barret family pictures and visited with Barret grandchildren and neighbors to jog their memory and recapture the way the place looked when the family lived in it," Ann Phillips said. "It was the custom back then to sweep the yard to keep out grass that might hide rodents, snakes and insects. Also, the bare earth served as a fire break."
Leaning against the porch wall is the brush broom, or "bresh" broom as the old-timers called it. The twisted dogwood branches that compose what looks like a witch's broom will claw from the soil whatever might try to grow in the yard.
Using the double front doors, the Phillipses are carrying on another Barret family tradition. "The grandchildren said the Barrets always asked guests to sign the door when they came for a visit. We didn't find the guests' door, but we found a bedroom door with the notation 'December 27, 1878, dance at Teutsch's tonight,' " Charles Phillips said. "We've continued the tradition by having our guests sign the front door."
The first name on the door is sprawled in bold strokes: "Bill Clements, 9-22-81." On that date, the 115th anniversary of the day Tol Barret struck oil, the Barret house was dedicated as a Texas landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Gov. Bill Clements attended the ceremony and renewed the old tradition by signing the front door.
Inside the wide center hall with its plain white vertical board walls, varnished yellow pine floor, hand-woven rug and dark American Empire furniture, the atmosphere seems genteel, in keeping with family descriptions of Tol Barret, as a quiet, well-educated man.
Lyne Taliaferro (Tol) Barret, was born in Appomattox, Va., in 1832, and came to Texas with his family when he was 10. Growing up in Nacogdoches County, he knew about oil seeping from streams where hogs liked to wallow. He probably heard about the water well over in Shelby County that burned for 12 months. Moreover, he did not believe the "experts" who claimed that significant amounts of oil would never be found in Texas.
Drilling Gets Under Way
In early 1859 he prepared to drill for oil. He leased a tract of 229 acres about 12 miles southeast of Nacogdoches, but lack of machinery and then the Civil War halted his plans. So the world's first producing oil well was discovered in Pennsylvania in August, 1859. At the time, oil was used primarily for lubricants and medicine.
After serving in the Confederate Army, Barret came home, formed the Melrose Petroleum Oil Co. with four other men, and renewed his lease. He mounted on a tripod an auger that was 8 feet long and 8 inches in diameter. Using a steam engine for drilling and a mule to pull the auger out of the hole, he bored to 106 feet, where, in early fall of 1866 he struck oil. This first Texas oil well produced 10 barrels a day.
Barret secured financing through a Pennsylvania firm and brought a Pennsylvania operator, John F. Carll, to Texas to begin a second well. When it didn't come in at 80 feet, Carll shut down the drilling and headed home. The bottom had dropped out of the petroleum market. Prices plummeted from $6.59 to $1.35 a barrel.
Broke, and unable to convince Pennsylvania oil operators of the merits of Texas petroleum, Barret gave up. He spent the remainder of his life managing his wife's farms and a mercantile store in Melrose. He lived until 1913, long enough to see that he had been correct. An oil boom hit when Barret drilled in 1887, and the granddaddy of them all, Spindletop, gushed in 1901. Texas, indeed, became the oil capital of the world.