Texas Living

Texas Titans: H.L. Hunt, Legendary Oil Tycoon

By Abi Grise Morgan 10.18.22

In Kilgore, a bronze statue of legendary Texas oilman H.L. Hunt stands watch over the East Texas Oil Museum. His brow is furrowed. He’s leaning slightly to one side, seemingly impatient. His hands are mid-gesture but stay close to the chest. This is the portrait of a man with a practiced poker face who liked to gamble, with luck on his side. He achieved not only the American Dream but the Texas Dream: to drill his way to riches off sweet Texas oil on land he bought for a song.

As in all tales of the American Dream, H.L. Hunt came from relatively humble beginnings. He was one of eight children born to farmers near Vandalia, Illinois, in 1889 — the son of a former Confederate soldier and grandson of a Union Army chaplain. (We’re assuming politics were off the table at Thanksgiving dinner.) At 15, he left home, traveling through Canada and the Dakotas to work as a lumberjack and farmhand.

After his father passed, he inherited enough money to purchase some land in Arkansas and try his hand at cotton trading. When the market price for cotton shrank, he was left upside down on his investment; his land was virtually worthless.

Hunt gambled recreationally and kept his wits in a pickle — a trait that served him well both in his career and at the poker table. One day, while pondering how to get out of the cotton business, he overheard his business associates discussing an oil gusher discovered at El Dorado. Instinctively, he knew he needed to go all in before anyone else got there.

He convinced three of his friends to loan him a total of $50 toward an old rig and drove out to the oil field. He drilled, and — lo and behold — hit oil. He then gobbled up as much real estate nearby as he could, eventually up to 1,000 acres at $15 to $20 an acre. He smartly opted not to sell and instead built his own production facilities. A major industry producer bought half the interest in his company and … he was a millionaire at 35.

In 1929, Hunt bought land in East Texas and by the next year had 100 oil wells in the South. One of his smartest moves was his acquisition of C.M. Joiner’s 4,000 acres of oil-rich land in East Texas. C.M. was sitting on a treasure trove of oil but had one problem: He was penniless and unable to drill due to land title issues. While major oil companies wouldn’t touch his property due to the title issues, Hunt struck a deal: $3,000 in cash, three short-term loans of $15,000, and $1.2 million upon future production on the land. And thus began Hunt’s drilling of one of the richest oil fields in the U.S.

Hunt’s risk-taking paid off, and he was hooked on the thrill of oil discovery. According to Hunt’s interview with the New York Times in 1964, a game of poker couldn’t match the highs and lows of the oil industry: “I quit playing poker in 1921,” he said. “I went into the oil business then, and anything else is like penny ante. The reason I quit playing poker was that it wasn’t any contest.”

After the death of his first wife, Lyda, Hunt married a Hunt Oil secretary named Ruth, 30 years his junior. She was said to be the quintessential Texas belle: big hair and all manners. Ruth Hunt is credited for turning him away from cigars and poker and instead to the Baptist church and conservative politics — his next investment.

Hunt shifted his focus toward politics in the 1950s, with the creation of his own foundation called Facts Forum. He produced conservative, anti-communist radio and television programs and used the platform to promote and distribute books by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. His radio segment played on over 500 stations.

By the 1960s, Hunt moved onto drilling the vast oil deposits in Libya, along with investments in publishing, cosmetics, health food producers, and the farming of Texas’ most beloved nut: pecans. At one time, he was the largest pecan grower in the nation.

Hunt passed away in 1974 with an estimated fortune of $2 billion — a large figure even today. He was four times richer than all the Rockefellers combined. His weekly income was over $1 million per week before his death, and his children’s trusts were worth even more than his estate. Unfortunately, their business acumen wasn’t quite as sharp as their old pop’s — three of them nearly collapsed the silver market in the 1980s and pretty much washed a portion of the family fortune down the drain.

Even so, the Hunt family remains one of the richest in Texas. Likewise, Texas is richer thanks to the economic impact of H.L.’s business — and his success story as the quintessential Texas oil tycoon.

H.L. Hunt wasn’t afraid to take risks. Neither were these extraordinary females who made the Texas history books.

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