"Think of it as a Texas version of Hillbilly Elegy."
— Bryan Burrough, New York Times bestselling author of THE BIG RICH and BARBARIANS AT THE GATE
"Bryan Mealer has given us a brilliant, and brilliantly entertaining, portrayal of family, and a bursting-at-the-seams chunk of America in the bargain.”
— Ben Fountain, bestselling author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
A saga of family, fortune, faith in Texas, where blood is bond and oil is king…
In 1892, Bryan Mealer’s great-grandfather leaves the Georgia mountains and heads west into Texas, looking for wealth and adventure in the raw and open country. But his luck soon runs out. Beset by drought, the family loses their farm just as the dead pastures around them give way to one of the biggest oil booms in American history. They eventually settle in the small town of Big Spring, where fast fortunes are being made from its own reserves of oil. For the next two generations, the Mealers live on the margins of poverty, laboring in the cotton fields and on the drilling rigs that sprout along the flatland, weathering dust and wind, booms and busts, and tragedies that scatter them like tumbleweed. After embracing Pentecostalism during the Great Depression, they rely heavily on their faith to steel them against hardship and despair. But for young Bobby Mealer, the author’s father, religion is only an agent for rebellion.
In the winter of 1981, when the author is seven years old, Bobby receives a call from an old friend with a simple question, “How'd you like to be a millionaire?”
Twenty-six, and with a wife and three kids, Bobby had left his hometown to seek a life removed from the blowing dust and oil fields, and to find spiritual peace. But now Big Spring’s streets are flooded again with roughnecks, money, and sin. Boom chasers pour in from the busted factory towns in the north. Drilling rigs rise like timber along the pastures, and poor men become millionaires overnight.
Grady Cunningham, Bobby's friend, is one of the newly-minted kings of Big Spring. Loud and flamboyant, with a penchant for floor-length fur coats, Grady pulls Bobby and his young wife into his glamorous orbit. While drilling wells for Grady's oil company, they fly around on private jets and embrace the honky-tonk high life of Texas oilmen. But beneath the Rolexes and Rolls Royce cars is a reality as dark as the crude itself. As Bobby soon discovers, his return to Big Spring is a backslider’s journey into a spiritual wilderness, and one that could cost him his life.
A masterwork of memoir and narrative history, The Kings of Big Spring is an indelible portrait of fortune and ruin as big as Texas itself. And in telling the story of four generations of his family, Mealer also tells the story of America came to be.
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About the Author
Bryan Mealer is the author of Muck City and the New York Times bestseller The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – written with William Kamkwamba – which has been translated into more than a dozen languages and is the basis of a major motion picture. He’s also the author of All Things Must Fight to Live, which chronicled his time covering the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Associated Press and Harper’s. His other work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Esquire, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Mealer and his family live in Austin.
Read an Excerpt
John Lewis leaves the hollow and heads west ... a child is born ... the boll weevil comes to Texas ...
In the spring of 1892, my great-grandfather John Lewis Mealer left his home near Sharp Top Mountain, in the foothills of the Georgia Blue Ridge, and headed west in the direction of his brother. He was in his early twenties, unmarried, and had begun to feel the closeness of the hollow in new and unsettling ways.
Lately, there'd been trouble between the moonshiners and revenuers. Some of the boys who kept their stills near the creek had organized for vengeance, donning black hoods and setting fire to homes of suspected informers. The Honest Man's Friend and Protector, they called themselves. The sheriff and deputy had given chase, and the boys had met them with gunfire and taken to the woods. The lawmen wasted no time destroying their stills, and ever since the presence of the feds had been felt in the valley.
With so few ways to earn money in the hollow, John Lewis and his brothers, along with their father, had found easy work with the moonshiners, providing them firewood, along with apples and corn for their mash. But few men wanted a war. The revenuers were a ruthless bunch who practiced a kind of terror justice that brought back memories of the Confederate Home Guard. During the Civil War, the militia — whose mission was to protect the families of fighting men — had instead pillaged their way across Gilmer and Pickens counties. Two of them had murdered John Lewis's uncle Peter Cantrell in the summer of 1864 after accusing him of desertion. Uncle Peter lay buried in the family plot near Burnt Mountain, his stone proclaiming for the ages: KILLED BY THE JORDAN GANG.
At its best, the hollow was as peaceful as the first breaths of creation, crowded with pine and yellow poplar and broad Spanish oak. The Mealer house stood almost hidden in a grove of cottonwoods, save for clusters of daffodils that served as landscaping. John Lewis's father, Robert, had cleared enough trees to allow a few vaults of sunlight for raising food and animals.
The family had lost their mother when John Lewis was four years old, leaving Robert to raise four kids on his own. His second wife had given him ten more mouths to feed in as many years, and for the most part, the forest had provided. Within a ten-minute walk they found wild strawberries, blackberries, honey hives, and a grove of apple trees. They'd learned to harvest and prepare pokeweed and chinquapin so they could eat it without being poisoned, and how to brew sassafras root into tea. The water that bubbled cold from the spring tasted like the iron and copper that lined the valley floor, something the Cherokee believed carried healthful properties. A dairy cow grazed amid the trees and the garden provided herbs and vegetables. As for meat, there were hogs and pullets and a forest full of squirrels, which they parboiled with cayenne to vanquish the gaminess, then pan-fried with milk gravy.
But short of moonshine, the forest offered meager paying work for Robert and his boys. A pair of men with a crosscut saw could make something from the rough timber, and if you were handy with a froe, you could split white oak into shingles to sell in town. But that way of life didn't hold young men the way it used to, not since the war, especially when half the South, it seemed, was bounding westward.
By 1892, it was possible to take a train clear to California, leaving from Jasper or Ellijay on the Marietta Line, as long as you had the money. Even those with empty pockets were stowing away on freighters and heading in that direction. Out west, the nation was still busy expanding, annexing, trying to fill its new borders. And what the West needed most were men to plow the soil and populate the towns, to work the mines, railroads, and factories that were fortifying this new world.
For the first time, thanks to the U.S. Army, the Indian no longer posed a threat to settlers crossing the coverless plains. The great warrior tribes that had repelled Manifest Destiny from the Powder River to the Rio Grande had been broken and contained, and their buffalo slaughtered.
Gold miners now blasted the Black Hills of the Lakota Sioux, while cattlemen drove their herds atop the lush bluestem where Comanche once trailed the buffalo. Behind them came farmers from the crowded East and the busted plantations of the Confederacy. Each year, tens of thousands were rushing into the Oklahoma Territory, where the government ceded Indian land to a stampede of covered wagons. Even more came from around the globe: from Germany, Bohemia, Scandinavia, and beyond, a great army of tomorrow men seeking cheap land, unobstructed views, and less government.
Many were going to Texas. The advancing railroad had opened farmland in the eastern part of the state, while the army's defeat of the Comanche had freed the western frontier. Railroad agents lured homesteaders with pamphlets and newspaper ads promising cheap and abundant land, an agrarian paradise unmolested by ice and snow, blessed with abundant rain and a kind of miracle soil that would grow any kind of crop. Since the end of the war, the population of Texas had nearly tripled.
Hundreds of thousands had gone there from John Lewis's home state of Georgia — so many that in 1879 an Atlanta newspaper bemoaned the impact of "Texas fever." "As long as the idea prevails that Texas is a very much better state than Georgia, the people who share this delusion will be discontented, shiftless, and inefficient."
Georgians, along with Southerners from Alabama and Tennessee, rushed first into East Texas, settling as tenant farmers and sharecroppers on the large plantations that had gone bankrupt after the war. And after the railroads made headway into the western range, they came to plow up the grassland and pushed the stockmen aside, since the land was more valuable under cotton than beef. In 1886, a New Orleans paper wrote that farmers were moving into western Texas at such a rate "that ranchers have just enough time to move their cattle out and prevent their tails being chopped off by the advancing hoe."
John Lewis's brother Newt had gone to Texas a few years earlier, chasing the new railroad and whatever fortune he could pull down from its trail of smoke. The oldest brother, Thomas, had left at the same time, but never made it out of Georgia. When he reached Bartow County, forty-six miles away, the flat green river bottom enchanted him enough to stay. He eventually opened a general store in Adairsville and counted among his neighbors the Floyd family, whose son Charles later became the beloved outlaw known as Pretty Boy.
Newt had landed in Hillsboro, in north central Texas, where the soil was dark and rich and cotton wagons jammed the streets four and five deep. The immigration flyers touted the potential for corn, cotton, and wheat, so easy to grow that even a mountain dweller like John Lewis could tame the land and prosper.
With the moonshiners now gone from the hollow, John Lewis's prospects paled against the bright Texas dream. He was young and strong and possessed something that was desired in the promised land — he was restless. And while I don't know the details of how he left Georgia, I can imagine the excitement as he bid his family farewell, walked to the nearest depot, then gave himself to that great wave rolling west.
* * *
The train journey likely took him from Jasper to Atlanta, through Alabama and across Mississippi and on to Fort Worth, then down into Hillsboro. The town sat along the blackland prairie, which stretched from Oklahoma down to Austin. It contained some of the most fertile soil in the state, and the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas line, known as the Katy, had connected the markets and allowed the cotton trade to boom. The Katy now hauled cotton by the ton down to Galveston, while coming the other way were New York financiers and shrewd German farmers, who'd scoop a handful of the waxy soil and feel the money in their fingers.
But the promises made by the pamphlets and newspaper ads came to an end shortly after John Lewis arrived. In 1893 the country entered a prolongued depression triggered by the collapse of the northern railroads. Banks folded by the hundreds, and over fifteen thousand businesses closed. In Texas, the value of the blackland plummeted, and when it did, the eastern holding companies gobbled it up. The self-contained farmer couldn't afford the mortgages, so he was forced to rent his fields, customarily paying the companies a fourth of his cotton and a third of other crops. But the companies had no use for vegetables, since they weren't commodities that could be sold commercially. If you wanted a mortgage, or even to rent a farm, you had to grow cotton.
It's unclear how John Lewis's brother Newt fared in Hillsboro, but in 1895, records show that he returned to Georgia with a Texas bride, and in that same year, John Lewis married Julia Bateson.
The Batesons had arrived from Arkansas in 1875 and settled in the town of Cleburne, some thirty miles north of Hillsboro. Over time, Julia's father came to own several large farms that brought the family wealth and prominence. Her brother John would later become a celebrated stockman, known throughout the country for his blue-ribbon Jersey cattle. His sons were builders and developers.
In the only photo that exists of Julia, what stands out besides her swirls of dark hair and smoky eyes is the expensive jewelry she's wearing: a pair of pearl earrings and a necklace with an ivory-colored pendant in the shape of a heart. Most likely she was educated in the Cleburne schools and, as the oldest girl, instilled with gentility and standards when it came to choosing a husband. John Lewis was tall, powerfully built, and known to clear the cane-bottom chairs from a room and dance an Irish reel. He could read and write and tell a good yarn. But unlike the Bateson men, he was poor and acreless, a lower hillbilly from the East.
The story of how they met did not survive them. The marriage certificate from Hill County is dated May 31, 1895, the Reverend T. N. James officiating. Julia was twenty years old and John Lewis just shy of his twenty- fifth birthday. But other records reveal a surprising twist — a daughter, Goldie, had been born March 9, nearly three months earlier. One could assume there was a delay in record keeping, or that someone in the clerk's office made a mistake when filing the documents. But if the records are true, Goldie's birth constituted a scandal in their time. And for a prominent family like the Batesons, this was a mark on their name, and could help explain their absence later when the couple needed them most.
By 1902, two more daughters had arrived, Fannie and Allie. Somehow that same year, John Lewis managed to rise above his tenancy and achieve the dream of ownership. He purchased thirteen acres south of Hillsboro, which he flipped two years later for forty-two acres hemmed with live oaks. A son was born, John Jr., whom everyone called Bud, followed by another daughter, Ahta.
That was 1907, when steady showers fell throughout the spring and summer. The cotton emerged like ropes of green pearls, and in their usual procession, flowered white before shedding their petals as the boll readied to bloom. But starting that year, the rain could not be trusted, because traveling with it came the boll weevil.
For more than a decade, the tiny gray beetles had made their terrifying advance from Mexico, ravaging crops and livelihoods with their long snouts that penetrated the young boll and severed its heart. The local gins were full of horror stories of bright, vibrant buds that flared one morning and were dead the next. Farmers spoke of the boll weevil in reverent tones, while bluesmen honored them with ballads the way they did the Devil and loose women.
For more than a decade, entomologists had rallied both chemistry and biology against it, unleashing poisonous clouds of powdered sulfur, Paris green, London purple, and lead arsenate, in addition to employing armies of parasite wasps and Guatemalan ants. But the boll weevil was able to adapt and change its habits to withstand any attack.
By 1907, Louisiana reported total infestation; already the swarms had stretched into Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and they would keep devouring until they reached the beaches of Georgia and could find no more cotton to destroy.
Once the weevils ravaged a farmer's crop and left his cupboards bare for the winter, they retired to the surrounding brush and waited for him to replant. In the pine forests east of Hillsboro, the damage was so complete that many farmers hadn't bothered to harvest at all. Some families sold land for pennies on the dollar, while others simply walked away and left their farms to the plague.
A great many of them headed to West Texas, where the boll weevil hadn't learned to survive atop the cold, dry plains. From 1903 to 1910, thousands of families loaded into wagons and Pullman cars and headed for higher ground, scuttling westward like the bugs who'd put them on the run. They left behind the pine forests and black river bottoms, pulled their teams across the ninety-eighth meridian, and entered the American West.
* * *
There's no account of John Lewis's own struggles with the boll weevil. But it's likely the pests discovered his little place in the groves, because by 1909 the family had abandoned their farm and followed the migration, traveling 250 miles by horse and wagon to work another man's fields.
The tenant farm was outside of Roby, where thousands of boll weevil refugees came to settle. The geography was ideal. Roby had sweeping green hills, loamy soil, and thickly wooded riverbanks. Steady rains fell during the early years of the migration, and under so many hands, there came bumper harvests of cotton, corn, and wheat.
The refugees wanted land of their own, but their very presence had pushed prices to unreachable heights. Unable to afford their own farms, many decided to turn back eastward and face down the weevil, whose advance was unstoppable. They returned to the blacklands and pinewoods to combat the plague in new ways, to diversify crops, or to quit farming altogether and find careers in town.
One hundred miles east of Roby was the town of Eastland, whose officials were attempting to spin the weevils' destruction in its favor. Perhaps John Lewis saw one of the many immigration pamphlets advertising Eastland as "the ideal place for a farmer to make money and school his children without raising cotton." They even went so far as to promise no crop failures. "Here is found an ideal place for the man with the push and energy to make good," and if John Lewis had anything, it was that.
Best of all, the land was cheap. In 1913, records show that John Lewis purchased 171 acres south of Eastland from a local lawman named George Bedford. (Years later, Bedford served as chief of police in nearby Cisco, where on Christmas Eve 1927 he was killed while exchanging gunfire with a bank robber dressed as Santa Claus.)
When I walked this land over a hundred years later, little seemed to have changed. A wide slice of green pasture sloped upward from the dirt road and solitary oaks bloomed like mushrooms on the expanse. And just south of the pasture, sitting on a hill overlooking the whole scene, sat the farmhouse, shaded by another large oak. The rest of the property was ringed with juniper and pecan and open for grazing cattle. The Leon River flowed a mile up the road, yet the ground held plenty of water.
It was November when John Lewis and Julia arrived with their children, now totaling six. Another daughter, Velva, had been born in 1910. I assume John Lewis looked ahead to the spring, when he could plant peanuts, corn, and peas — cash crops of the day that were thriving in the sandy soil. And now with so much land of his own, I'm sure he wasted little time carving out his patch of paradise. A vegetable garden needed tilling for Julia to tend with the girls. And when Bud wasn't in school, he could help raise the barn with proper corncrib, hayloft, and stable for a milk cow and team. There had to be a henhouse, of course, and a pigpen, and a smokehouse for when the shoats got big enough to butcher. And if they were lucky, the root cellar could go at the base of the windmill, where they could keep milk or watermelons cool.
Excerpted from "The Kings Of Big Spring"
Copyright © 2018 Bryan Mealer.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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