History of Arkansas’ First Oil Boom Told At Musuem of Natural Resources in Smackover

With the winter weather upon us, visiting museums serve a dual purpose. A chance to entertain the brain and stay warm. A museum I always enjoy is the  Arkansas
Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover. For those unfamiliar with the museum, below is a report from Mike Duncan of Channel 11 for their Amazed by Arkansas segment. Enjoy and stay warm out there!


Oil and gas exploration in Arkansas grew at an amazing rate with the discovery of the Fayetteville Shale formation. But towns like Smackover owe their very existence to Arkansas’ first oil boom in the 1920’s. It’s a story with roots not far from the site of the Museum of Natural Resources.

Here you can get up close to the machinery and structures that once towered above the pines of southern Arkansas.

It all started on January 10 of 1921. That’s when a well called the Busey number one exploded into life, a plume of the black liquid spraying so high into the sky students at El Dorado High School could see it from the upstairs windows.

The museum tells the story of everything that happened next. “You’re on Smackover’s Boomtown Street. And all of the buildings that are on this street were actual businesses during the south Arkansas oil boom,” says Pam Beasley, the superintendent of the Museum of Natural Resources. She says the oil boom changed everything in south Arkansas.

Small towns flooded with thousands of people in search of good paying jobs Beasley explains, “You’ll see here on the wall
here we have a population of 93. And that’s pretty close in Smackover, about 93 people. When oil hit in Smackover it went in just leaps and bounds, from 93 to a thousand to upwards of twenty five thousand.”

During the boom days, Smackover was considered a pretty wild place. Even though it was the 1920’s, in some parts of town people carried guns openly like the wild west. One citizens complained there was a murder or a shooting almost every night.
Citizens eventually formed bands of vigilantes – who cleaned up the lawlessness once and for all.

Only six months after the Busey number one came in – Arkansas produced almost a million barrels per month. Oil came up so fast they stored it in open pits until storage tanks could be built.

By the next year, 59 oil companies called El Dorado home – making more than a few fortunes. Beasley says, “Lion Oil is still in operation in El Dorado today. It was started as El Dorado Natural Gas. And then a fellow by the name of T.H. Barton, if you know Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, that’s the same fellow. But Col. Barton ran Lion Oil up until the 60’s and he became a
wealthy man.
There’s a lot to learn at the museum – even the products you may not realize come from oil or its by products. The boom here
was over in less than 10 years. And most folks moved on to the next boom.
But oil came to south Arkansas right when it was
needed to keep this part of the country alive.
Beasley says, “Even during the depression, when times were hard in other parts of the state, we didn’t suffer quite so bad here in south Arkansas because we had petroleum that was still being refined or
being produced on a regular basis.”
The Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover is where you can learn more about the boom of the 1920. The museum is located at 3853 Smackover Hwy. More details can be found at: www.amnr.org/


Join the Conversation