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Tullos Toughs


Tullos Toughs


Photograph in custody and used with permission of Richard Thornton Fox


In 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.

Prior 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.

Nearly 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 high interest. 

Should 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.

In 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. 

The 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.

Working 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 Toughs."

The 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.

This 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 stopped.

Norman 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. 

Each 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.

The 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." 

Besides 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.

During 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.

By 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 crowds attended.

The 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.

There 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.

The 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 non-productive well.

Just 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.

Norman 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.."

Evidence 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 here.

Parents 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. 

The 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 September 1945.

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, Texas.  Norman 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. 

In 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. 

Raymond 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.


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