The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY
Wednesday, 27 October 1920

Many Made Rich Overnight in Lee
by Tom Wallace

Beattyville, Ky., Oct. 26

That about $6,000,000 worth of oil flows out of the wells of Lee County annually would not be suspected by a visitor to Beattyville, county seat of the largest oil-producing county in Kentucky and one of the famous oil fields of America.  The outward aspects of Beattyville are little different from what they were before oil was struck.

The big brick hotel near the railroad station, which was packed during the period of the drilling of the earlier wells and the flocking of oil men or all sorts and conditions to Beattyville, now is a school building.  The "Hotel Jones," as plain and unpretentious as the name it bears, a typical mountain inn, is, as before the discovery of oil, the leading hotel.

The streets are not paved with brick or lined with new brick buildings, but a county which was a "pauper" before oil was struck now pays to the State about $200,000 a year as oil production tax and gets from that source for its own use $100,000 a year.  Therefore, without voting a bonded indebtedness Lee is in line as a good roads county.  Its values assessed for general taxation in 1917 were $1,750,000.  This year they are $4,500,000.

700,000 Barrels Monthly Output

Drilling oil wells still is in progress.  The county's production runs past 700,000 barrels a month.  Its output, Lee County citizens say, is more that that of the rest of the state.  Yet the future of Lee probably will be concerned with coal as much as with oil.  With coal development comes a more substantial general development than usually attends a good flow of oil.

Sitting upon a goods box in front of a store or loafing with the Court House crowd, one may hear one account after another of how Lee Countians who had been poor and lived humbly grew rich from oil royalties or oil leases, or oil land speculation, how and where they invested their money and why more ofit has not been invested in Beattyville.

$400 Farm Brings $100,000.

One man who had a farm near the Powell County line worth around $400 got $100,000 for his royalty rights and bought for $92,000 a Clark County farm which now is valued at $200,000.

An old man who had many daughters and one son and a large farm which draped precipitous mountainsides with crops that seemed barely able to cling to the soil with tenacious roots, had divided his acreage between his children, after a brave and a successful effort to bring them up presentably.  When oil was found there was enough income from each little farm to make its owner wealthy.

A Lee County man who sold his royalties fro a handsome sum went down into the Bluegrass country and gave a real estate agent an order to buy for him a large farm with a handsome house on it.  He got just what he wanted, but the negroes on the place told him that house was haunted.  He hadn't intended buying any old family ghosts.  He didn't want them.  He sold the place at a sacrifice and bought another handsome house without ghosts in it.  He could afford the change and no luxury is more worth paying for than the luxury of knowing that when you open the front hall door late at night you will not be confronted by a "ha'nt."

A Millionaire In Overalls

I was introduced this morning to "one of the largest landowners in Lee County."  When he was buttonholed by an operator who wished to talk about a matter of business the man who had introduced us added the information, "a millionaire who was a poor man before the oil boom."  An unspoiled millionaire in overalls and shirt sleeves, the most sensible of business costumes for a man in his business.

The string of stories of sudden acquistion of wealth is all but endless.

D. B. Pendergrass, a silversmith in Beattyville - and the town was then a village and by no means a gold mine for a silversmith - scquired a tract of land which a poor man could buy.  He now owns one of the historic homes of the Bluegrass country, the famous Isaac Shelby homestead.  A Beattyvillian, Charles Eveleth, who went on the water wagon, he said laughingly, because when he had taken too many drinks he bought some wild cat oil land for $1,500, now owns, as a result of oil on that land a home in Michigan, a home in Lexington and a home here.  He has many paying investments in city real estate.

Beattyvillians, like the land owners of the adjoining county, Estill, made their money by retaining lands on the familiar one-eighth-to-the-owner basic, or by selling their royalties after the wells came in.  They did not go in for operating, but seemingly nearly everyone got a whack at money in some way.  Some of them cleared out and invested elsewhere.  Some still are buying mountain lands in counties that are to be developed.  A physician who tells me he made money in Lee County oil, tells me he just bought, outrige, a tract of Squabble Creek, in Perry County, with visible assests in the form of virgin timber and a thick vein of coal.  There still are opportunities in the developed and the undeveloped counties.  Noen are so quick to take advantage of such opportunies as those who have once bought wisely or sold well.

Has Fine Quality of Coal

Oil enriches individuals, increases revenues derived from taxation, but coal provides more employment and has a more decided general effect on business.  Lee County has coal of an excellent quality for domestic use.  For more than 100 years it has been mined on a small scale.  Almost in Beattyville there is a small mine which has been worked since 1807.  "Not since 1907, understand." says a Beattyvillian, pointing out a mine in a region in which most dates of development are of the Twentieth century.

What is known as groundhop mining was done here and there in Lee for generations before there was any real commercial development of coal in Eastern Kentucky.  "Groundhogging" means digging coal from the vein with a pick, without undercutting, without tunneling, without ventilatioin.  Short small holes usually bring a miner to the point at which he strikes water or the air gets bad and he turns to new diggings without having exhausted the vein.

Long ago all freight moved by water.  Merchants and other business men in Lee County gave promissory notes payable not at the end of sixty days or six months, but "within ten days after the next tide."

There now is slack water navigation into Beattyville.  A coal company headed by "Pat" Calhoun, nationally known as a man who sent Abe Ruel to jail in San Francisco, is mining coal here and shipping its product by water altogether.  The company owns its tugs and barges and is in the fortunate position of master of its transportation facilities in a time of shortage of transportation.  There is apparently plenty of coal in this county to give the county a substantial added develpment, which along with what oil has done should make it one of the well-to-do counties of the eastern section.

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