1928 Tullos, Louisiana, was essentially a new town, a raw, booming
oil patch. It was small and the population probably never was more
than one thousand. The town is located in the pine woods 60 miles north of Alexandria. The town name came from a family who
had extensive land holdings in the area.
to discovery of petroleum in the locality, the only other industry
was harvesting timber. Vast stands of virgin growth longleaf pine
was extant in the 1920s. Large sawmill towns, e.g., Selma,
Rochelle, and Urania were built by lumber companies to attract and
provide a stable work force.
all houses in the towns were owned by the company, as was a single
mercantile store. The caliber of employee housing depended on the
status of the worker. Supervisors lived comfortably, but common
laborers did not fare nearly so well. Nominal rent was withheld
from employees' wages each payday. All workers were expected to
use the company store for all their needs. Sometimes workers were
paid in "script" instead of cash. Script had a value
somewhat more than cash at the company store, but could only be
used at this place. Credit was available from the store but at
any employee be noted to buy too many of his necessities at stores
out of town, he was nearly certain to be warned against this
practice. Warnings were taken seriously since loss of a job risked
placing the family into immediate poverty. Other than hard
scrabble share cropping, there was no other employment available.
If all these practices sound like a feudal system of worker
exploitation, this is exactly what it was. Given these managerial
techniques, it is not surprising two of the towns mentioned,
Rochelle and Selma, were relatively short lived When the available
stand of timber was cut, that was it. The mills shut down and the
people just faded away. The timber company that operated in Urania
was more far sighted and early on started a reforestation program
to replace trees harvested. Their
operations still continue in Urania.
the early 1920s, oil was discovered at Tullos in a salt dome about
1500 feet under the stand of pine trees. This depth is shallow for a
modern oil well, but manual labor was required to
drill and operate the sites. Petroleum recovered was a heavy crude
prized for use in manufacturing lubricating products. The well
hole was drilled down to the reservoir under the salt dome. Then a
mixture of petroleum and brine was pumped to the surface. The
mixture pumped was on the order of twenty parts brine and one part
oil, depending on the well site and how long it had been
operating. The fluid was sent to holding tanks or earthen pits and
allowed to settle. In a matter of days most of the petroleum rose
to the top of the pool and was drawn off to be sent to refineries
for processing. The
brine was considered useless and had to be disposed of.
disposal problem was simple to solve in those non-enlightened
times. The brine was simply directed to the nearest ditch and
allowed to run to a lower level. It always ended up in a swamp or
creek. The salt content of this brine was several times more
concentrated than sea water and invariably contained some
suspended petroleum. The end result was the brine contaminated and
killed all vegetation in its path and wreaked havoc on wetlands
and waterways. Though such practices are not longer allowed, the
environmental scars are still visible.
in the oil fields was hard, dirty and physically demanding work.
Conditions were compounded by the climate of central Louisiana
where summer temperatures routinely are more than 100 F. and
torrential rains and tornados are common. Predictably, the men who
did the work reflected their surroundings. They were generally
tough, honest, direct and occasionally violent. Morals, politics
and religion were observed from one extreme or another. There was
little middle ground or room for compromise on most issues.
Arguments often led to physical confrontations, with occasional tragic results.
People from surrounding communities
would refer to the local inhabitants as the “Tullos
earth in Tullos was a peculiar type of clay known locally as
"gumbo." When it rained, which was a frequent
occurrence, the gumbo melted into a mud that stuck to the feet
with tenacity. After walking a few yards in this goo each foot
became the size of a dinner plate. The color of the gumbo ranged
from black to red. It permeated the entire area, houses, churches,
stores, everything. Actually, outsiders referred to the town as
"Mudville." With good reason.
then is where Norman and Ruby would live the greater part of their
lives. Norman seemed suited to fit in the general atmosphere. He
recalled to me when he first came to town he saw a person
mistreating a mule. So he, Norman, picked up a piece of 2x4 lumber
and "knocked the offender in the head." The mistreatment
came to Tullos as the District Superintendent for the Arkansas
Fuel Oil Company.
The company was operating about 50 producing wells, all within a
radius of 5 miles. About 40 full time employees were in the local
organization. Under the direct control of the superintendent were
a general foreman, a warehouse supervisor, and an
accountant/shipping agent who kept track of and oversaw shipment
of petroleum produced. The superintendent and his principal
assistants each lived in a "company house" built and
maintained by the company.
of these houses had less than 1000 square feet living space, but
they did have gas heat, running water and inside plumbing. No
matter the gas had little odor and was dangerous to live with, the
running water was really not potable (everyone had a tank or rain
barrel to collect drinking water). Plumbing was piped to a
convenient ditch. Indoor plumbing and running water were marks of
distinction in the early days of this town. Another company
house was a small cottage occupied by a warehouse assistant, a
black man named George Johnson, and his wife Polly. The cottage
was located near the warehouse which provided day to day storage
of supplies, pipe, fittings and working equipment. George had
encyclopedic knowledge of what was on hand and where it was
located This was no mean feat and he was recognized as an
indispensable part of the organization. Four
other company houses were located in a different part of the town.
main work force consisted of small groups of men called
"gangs"; who were led by a man titled, appropriately,
"gang pusher." Usually there were six or seven men in a gang.
Individual workers were known as "roustabouts." Gangs
did the laborious work of maintaining the wells in a producing
condition by pulling up and dismantling hundreds of feet of
pipe tubing to find and repair a defective section. There was no
way of doing this without becoming covered from head to toe by
oil, water and mud. Doing this in the July and August climate of
Louisiana could cause even the heartiest to "faint and fall
out." But, no one ever quit or walked off. Jobs were too
precious. Hopefully the wells pumped night and day to maximize
production. Some men known as "pumpers" worked in
individual 8 hour shifts to visit a number of wells on a set
schedule throughout the day to ensure all was in order. At night
this was a lonely and sometimes dangerous job. Many carried a gun
"just in case."
the Arkansas Fuel Oil Company, the other production company in
town was the H. L. Hunt organization, know as the Placid Oil
Company. Placid was approximately the same size as the Arkansas
Fuel Oil Company. There
were a few "poor boy" outfits operating three or four
wells each, but their production was always much less than that or
the larger companies.
the early boom days life in Tullos was lively. The main street was dirt,
or mud if it rained. One shooting incident occurred to which a
witness testified "it was so dusty I could not see across the
street." The prosecution allowed that in fact the mud in the
street was so bad on that day a mule team got stuck right in the
middle. Subornation of witnesses is not a recent thing. Law
enforcement in the town was accomplished by a town marshal who had
an office in a one room jail with two cells. Most local problems
were caused by drinking and/or fighting. The marshal had to be a
man of great physical courage and could never yield to a threat,
as many troublemakers found out the hard way. The marshal was paid
poorly, not universally admired, but nearly always obeyed.
the mid 1930s the boom was over and the companies worked to
maintain production already established. The town stabilized into
a village of two small grocery stores, a drugstore, a hardware
store, 2 dry goods stores, a picture show (movie), doctor's office
and 2 filling stations. All of these businesses , with the
exception of one filling station, were mom-and-pop operations.
These were two churches, one reasonable large Baptist Church, and
one smaller Methodist Church. On occasion Pentecostal tent
revivals would be held where believers would speak in tongues.
There was no doubting the sincerity of the believers and large
town school conducted grades 1 - 9. Classes were always small and
one teacher taught all subjects for the year group in the lower
grades. There was no public transportation to the school since
nearly all of the children lived nearby. Students either brought a
lunch or went home for the noon meal. There were no discipline
problems of consequence. Bad behavior was not tolerated by the
teacher, principal, or parents. No doubt the system was
authoritative - neither was there any doubt it was effective in
providing a basic education.
was little change in the town after the boom until the end of the
1930s when the war started in Europe and it was obvious the United
States would be drawn in. The draft started and the young men left
for the armed forces. Every able bodied single man between 18 and
26 was called. Later,
married men were inducted. Exceptions from the draft were nearly
unheard of. Even if a man had a valid reason not to serve, he was
generally considered to be a slacker and looked down on.
approaching war fueled an increased requirement for petroleum and
new wells were drilled in the existing fields. The company
headquarters in Shreveport, Louisiana, sent geologists and
engineers to Tullos to survey likely locations and determine where
the new holes were be drilled After due consultation between all
concerned, a wooden stake was placed in the ground to show the
exact site for the new well. When the search team had left the
area, Norman would invariable pull up the stake and move it a foot
or two to one side "just for good luck." This strategy
must have worked for it was rare to come up with a dry hole or
getting a drilling rig to the location was sometimes a monumental
task. First, a road had to be established, often through trees,
brush, across streams, etc. Usually a bulldozer would knock down
trees and then a board road was laid on the ground. This road,
similar in concept to a railroad track, was necessary to provide
support for trucks hauling the rig, pipe and so forth. The boards
used for the road were always green lumber, and this meant when
the timber got wet it would warp severely. Great care was
necessary to ensure the boards were nailed securely at all times.
Even so, occasionally a board would pop loose on one end and spear
a passing truck or automobile. Smart operators had special
procedures to check road conditions often.
ran a tight ship and was extraordinarily well thought of by the
company. He knew his job and was satisfied with his position in
the organization. He was called "N. G." by his friends.
Employees addressed him as "Boss" or "Cap'n
Fox" in person, but referred to him as `The Kingfish"
among themselves. Norman was an accomplished angler and was
reputed to "be able to catch fish out of a mud hole.."
of the war being fought so far away was clear enough. Army camps
Beauregard, Claiborne and Livingston were about fifty miles away
and basic training was conducted throughout the area for hundreds
of thousands of inductees. Trucks and tanks traveled through the
area single and in convoys throughout the day and night. It seemed
most of the soldiers wee from the northern states and they did not
appreciate the climate, red bugs, ticks and snakes the locals had
to contend with. Whenever possible people in the town would invite
soldiers on maneuvers or otherwise passing through in for meals.
These occasions were enjoyed by all concerned and a lot was
learned from guests and hosts.
Another great set of stories
about Tullos can be found
hoped someone else was likewise extending hospitality to their son
away in service. Locally,
the civilian population was subject to the same restrictions as
the rest of the country. Shoes,
sugar, coffee, cigarettes, tires and gasoline were rationed. None
of these restrictions caused any hardship, and only occasional
minor inconvenience. Though
details of the actual conflict were somewhat obscured by
censorship and lack of real time media coverage, people knew how
well off they were to be out of harms way. Early on a local Civil
Defense Corps was established to provide some defense against a
bombing attack. No doubt this came about because of the havoc
being caused in England by the Nazis. In retrospect it is hard to
see why or how a bombing attack would be carried out against
Tullos, but the drills did keep the war in focus.
occasional report of a local man being killed or wounded in action
also served to bring the war close. Norman and Ruby's son Raymond had started to college at the
Louisiana Polytechnic Institute in Ruston, La., in the fall of
1941. He was 16 at the time (Louisiana high schools finished at
grade 11 ). Before he
was 18, Raymond enlisted in the Navy but was not called to active
service until 1943. He served as an aircraft radar technician in
PBY Catalina flying boats and on aircraft tenders. He was on one
of the ships in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
Richard, Norman and Ruby's youngest son,
enlisted in the Navy in
1946 Ruby was diagnosed as having breast cancer and underwent a
radical mastectomy. The operation was not completely successful.
The cancer metastasized and she died of further complications in
1947. She is buried in the Thornton family cemetery in Liberty,
continued living in the company house after Ruby's death. In 1949
he married again, but the
union was not happy and was being dissolved when Norman had a
stroke in late 1951. The illness left him permanently disabled
with the loss of use of his left arm and impaired walking ability.
After an initial stay at a hospital in Shreveport, he stayed a
period at the Veteran's Hospital there until he went to live with
his son Raymond, then in Natchez, Mississippi.
recognition of the exceptional service Norman had given, the
Cities Service Oil Company (who had succeeded the Arkansas Fuel
Oil Company) continued Norman on full salary from
the time of his stroke until he reached normal retirement age in
1956, and then kept him on retirement pay. This made him
independent in so far as financial needs were concerned, and it
gave him great comfort to be able to pay for his own expenses for
the rest of his life.
and his family did all in their power to provide for Norman, but
his strong sense of independence led him to seek other
alternatives. Raymond was employed by Lane Wells, a oil and gas
drilling company and it was necessary for him to relocate every
two years so as dictated by the circumstances of the business.
Richard was a newly commissioned officer in the Navy and on sea
duty. Norman always had good relationships with his mother-in-law,
Carrie Thornton, in Liberty, Texas. He stayed with her for some
time prior to her death in 1960. About then, Raymond was
transferred to Lake Charles, La., and Norman moved to a nursing
home there to be close to him, but still have, in effect, his own
place to stay. Raymond was killed in a firearms accident in 1962
in New Iberia, La., where he was then living. Norman remained in
Lake Charles until he died on 28 December 2020 following three
weeks in a hospital. Death was caused by a new cerebral thrombosis
(stroke) brought on in part by pneumonia. Norman is buried in
Liberty, Texas, alongside Ruby.