Who are those people and why do they act that way?
By Bobby Weaver
No matter where they may roam, be it in oilfields in exotic places like the Middle East, South America, Africa, or even North Dakota, oilfield people maintain a certain persona. That persona derives from a close identification with the industry and it transcends place of origin or present domicile. They have their own internal social structure, language, and all the other attributes that make up a cohesive culture. Many have branded them oilfield trash. In response, most in the patch have adopted the moniker as a badge of honor bestowed on them by timid folk without the backbone to get out there and do a job most would never attempt.
Every industry has its own internal culture composed of a variety of characteristics that blend together create a specific persona, but that of the oil and gas industry appears to be a little more intense. During the first decades of the 20th century that culture developed within a transient work force operating amidst the chaotic background of numerous oil booms. Since those early days sophisticated technological change has transformed the mechanics of the industry but its internal social culture has remained little changed.
The perception of oilfield workers by those traditional souls living a settled stable lifestyle is often less than sterling. To most of them, when a boom developed in their area, the general approach was to “lock up the money and the whiskey and hide the women because that oilfield trash is coming to town.” Over time as those settled communities refused to associate with them, the “oilies” tended to coalesce within their own group and develop a unique internal culture. So the question arises as to just who are these oilfield people and what specific aspects of the profession has created their unique cultural identity?
To answer that question it is necessary to go back to the very beginnings of the industry in the Lone Star State. On January 10, 1901, when the Lucas #1 blew in a little south of Beaumont it jump started the oil and gas industry in the United States. At that time Texas boasted slightly more than three million citizens, of which 80 percent were rural. That compares to the present population of 28.5 million who are 80 percent urban. Back in 1901 there was not a single mile of paved road in the state and San Antonio, with a population of 53,000, was its largest city. In short, the Texas of 1901 was a huge lightly populated rural region.
Within a couple of months of that initial discovery Beaumont was overwhelmed as its 9,500 population mushroomed to more than 30,000. Over the next three decades as more and more discoveries were made across the state that phenomenon was repeated over and over again. That created a huge demand for oilfield labor in a region where most knew little or nothing about drilling and producing oil wells. True, a few cable tool men were imported from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but the vast majority of those early day workers were recruited from the farms, ranches, and small towns of Texas.
It was from that first group of rural background workers that the core of the oilfield culture we have today developed. They were overwhelmingly single males between the age of 16 and 25. They had grown up in a totally rural environment where the work was hard, the workdays long, and the pay low. Their few entertainment opportunities revolved around a variety of church related gatherings and the occasional Saturday night in town with a few coins jingling in their pockets. With the coming of an oil boom they could earn three dollars or more a day performing labor that was no harder than their accustomed farm work. Additionally, a plethora of entertainment possibilities existed, albeit of somewhat questionable character when judged by the mores of the Bible Belt environment from whence they sprang. The lure of the oilfield for those young men was almost irresistible when, from their perspective, every night became Saturday night. Hence the wild and reckless reputation.
In addition to a propensity for drinking, fighting, and general carousing they also brought with them a certain style of language that has remained peculiar to the industry. For example, from those first days inexperienced hires were called “boll weevils” or “weevils” for short in reference to their agricultural background. That term has remained in common usage to the present where statements like “pulling a weevil stunt” or getting “weevil bit” are commonly used to indicate mistakes caused by new hands. By the 1950s the term “worm” was introduced as interchangeable with weevil. Another term introduced in those early days was “oil patch” in lieu of oilfield. Those farm boys were used to cotton patches and corn patches as the name for a workplace so oil patch was a natural transition and like boll weevil it is often shortened to only “the patch.” Interestingly oil patch has entered into the general American lexicon where it is not uncommon to hear Wall Street analysts refer to the latest commodity prices from the oil patch. Numerous other examples harkening back to an agricultural background such as “tank farm” for clusters of oil storage tanks were coined in those early years and are still in common use.
Beginning with those first days a hiring pattern developed which perpetuated that lifestyle. When a boom ended (they seldom lasted more than two or three years) at a particular spot the bulk of the workers moved on to the next discovery. However, not all of them stayed with the transient lifestyle. Some opted to remain in the larger oil towns and maybe work for the “majors” in a more stable labor environment while others grew tired of the adventurous lifestyle and returned to the farm. Thus at each new boom more local young men were needed to replace those left behind and the cycle was repeated. Eventually, that renewal process developed a large core of experienced oilfield workers who followed the trade from boom to boom and perpetuated the nature of the culture.
As that professionalism developed so did an attitude of independence among the hands who in many cases were left to make major decisions with little supervision. That was particularly true of early day drillers, who were notorious for brooking no interference with their work related decisions. That attitude combined with the transient nature of the changing work force that moved from boom to boom has resulted in almost no labor union activity in the oil patch. When asked why they do not belong to a union most oilfield hands will tell you if they didn’t like the job they were on it was no problem to get another so why pay somebody for what they were doing anyway. Besides they already had one boss to report to so why take on another.
In addition to the agricultural related terminology the oilfield has a huge work related terminology peculiar to the industry. For example “turning to the right” as a descriptor of the rotary drill pipe turning became a way of describing getting work done. By the same token “twisting off” which refers to accidently twisting the drill pipe off in the hole and causing long fishing and repair delays became the term used for someone who goes on a tear and creates something of a personal problem. There are literally hundreds of those examples unique to the oil patch in general and to specific jobs within the patch.
Today’s oil and gas industry is divided into upstream, midstream, and downstream aspects. In both the midstream segment, which is primarily involved in the transport of oil and gas, and the downstream segment, where the focus is on refining and marketing, workers maintain a more stable traditional factory employee lifestyle. But it is on the upstream side, which is involved in exploration and production, that the culture developed and where it remains the most pronounced. That is where the booms develop utilizing a myriad of specific oilfield professions designed to drill and produce oil and gas wells.
Upstream work has its own specific social structure that is not readily apparent to outsiders. In general that structure is divided between contractors and company people. In earliest times there was little difference between the two but over time those differences have grown. In its simplest form the way an oilfield works is for the oil companies to acquire leases and hire contractors to drill those leases and prepare the field for production. It is with those contractors that the bulk of oilfield workers exist. They are the ones that follow the booms and scare the locals.
When the field has been drilled and begins to produce, the company workers tend to pump the oil and maintain the production operation. Hence company workers represent the more stable element while the contractors represent those stereotypical transient oilfield hands. Perhaps the company side of that dichotomy is most distinctly illustrated by the growing numbers of geologists, petroleum engineers, and other university trained professionals oil companies have hired as the depth and complexity of drilling and producing modern wells have grown. Although there is much blurring of those social lines in general they hold true.
The social divide between company people and contractors first began to be apparent as early as the 1920s in the area of housing. From the beginning the companies were intent upon hiring and retaining solid stable family-oriented workers upon whom they could depend. In order to do that they began to offer good housing to employees at little or no cost in the areas where the booms were operating at full blast. The development of the oil camp system in West Texas that lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s is a good example. Additionally, by the 1930s, oil companies also began to develop major safety programs along with insurance and retirement plans for their workers. All that provided a degree of financial stability which essentially placed the company people above the chaos surrounding boom town life.
Meanwhile, contract workers were left to pretty much fend for themselves in the stereotypical primitive living conditions of the boom towns of the day. Those contract companies were also faced with the problem of developing a reliable family oriented type of work force. In their case it was much more difficult given the travails of the boom and bust nature of their work, which forced workers to live in shacks, tents, and other primitive housing situations. Two things that developed in the immediate post WWII period changed those conditions considerably. The first was the large scale introduction of trailer houses, which allowed workers to move with the booms and take their families with them in relative comfort. The second was the improvement in paved roads and better automobiles that allowed workers to live in some centrally located place and drive to work as much as a hundred miles distant. That essentially killed the development of the old time shack towns engendered by booms.
Despite the move toward a more stable and settled lifestyle for the hands, that traditional oil patch culture still thrives. Perhaps it is because an oil boom is still the perfect place for a young person with a limited education but a willingness to work to earn a good living. The example of the recent Bakken shale boom in North Dakota and the Marcellus shale boom in Pennsylvania amply illustrates that. If you compare the stories from the small town newspapers from those areas in recent years to the small town Texas newspaper stories of the 1920s there is hardly any difference: the area is overrun by oilfield trash, all the young people have left for higher paying oilfield jobs, and local morality has gone to hell in a handbasket. By the same token that hard core group of oilfield hands brought in to run things would probably tell you that everything is turning to the right and this latest bunch of boll weevils are learning fast.