Days before turning 100, Vestal has
"been there, done that"
by Kevin Hamilton
WHEN I AM A MAN
“When I am a man I intend to be an aviator. I will graduate from high school, then go to an aviation school. The main thing I want to be is a mail carrier, who flies from New york to San Frnisco. I would fly over the United States and go to Philadelphia where Benjamin Frankin was born and become a printer.
“I would fly to Paris and Great Britain to visit foreign land, about which I read.
“I would work hard and get a large plane and join all frolics and fun.”
– William David (Jack) Vestal
(A piece written by Vestal for the Fowlkes Public School newsletter ‘The Broadcaster’ in December, 1928)
When you shake hands with Jack Vestal these days, you notice quickly that he has a really firm grip for a man soon to turn 100. If your imagination went into overdrive, you could imagine him squeezing tighter and maybe you’d hear the sounds of bones breaking.
But he keeps the handshake firm, and friendly. Just as firm and friendly as the light in his eyes.
At the cusp of becoming a centurian in his life, Jack nagivates the room in his home on Quail Valley with a walker, but with firm steps and a regal posture, his prose simple and direct. He is a stately man that, as he says “Has been there, done that.”
It would be hard to disagree.
Jack will turn 100 this Wednesday. Family and friends will gather together at his home at 1711 Quail Valley from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday to celebrate. No gifts are expected. “The pleasure of your company is my gift,” he noted in the party’s invitation.
Asked how he feels about turning 100, Jack answered “I can’t tell any difference in it than when I was back at 80.”
As for what he is looking forward to on his birthday, Jack said “I am looking forward to is getting back in the oilpatch on my Cat.”
As Jack stated way back as a sixth grader in the small three-room school in southwest Wichita County, he wanted to be a pilot. And he indeed earned his pilot license and has flown to several places. On much larger planes he and his late wife Bessie traveled the globe and to places like Hawaii, Alaska, Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. “We’ve been around a day or two. It’s been rather broadening.”
As his daughter, Sue Bradberry, noted of Jack’s life, “Imagine being a ‘witness’ to Charles Lindberg, the first airplanes and jet airplanes, Apollo 11, the Space Station, and now the space traveler, New Horizons, that flew all the way to Pluto and beyond. I still remember that day, July 20, 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and hearing him say ‘...the Eagle has landed’. It just happened to be on mom and dad’s 31st wedding anniversary, and we were watching it on a black and white TV.”
The majority of his life though, Jack has left a very visible mark on Wichita County as a oilman that started in 1941. He and Bessie’s legacy now includes three children (Sue, Ann Brandt, and David Vestal), nine grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren, and three great great grandchildren.
Some of the following narrative comes from Jack’s own hand in a five-page handwritten account. The rest includes memories and comments made in a subsequent interview at his home.
In the fall of 1916, a black land farmer’s daughter came to Electra to visit her sister. Her name was Sallie Leona Murehead.
While in Electra, Sallie met an itenerant cowboy named William David Vestal, who many knew as Buck. As in “itenerant”, Jack said that his father worked for several ranches in the area, including Parker, Waggoner, Burnett and XIT. “It was pretty common in those days.”
The two were married on Jan. 7, 1917, and lived for a short period of time close to Lake Wichita on the Archer County side. They moved to the Electra area shortly afterwards, where a son was born on Nov. 8, 1917. World War I was in progress, and there was a smallpox epidemic that was taking the lives of many.
Their son, Jack, caught the pox but fortunately survived. He still carries the scars that marked his neck and left cheek.
The Vestal family, which included Jack, a brother and four sisters, took up shop on a small ranch near Fowlkes Station, which included a railroad depot and schoolhouse.
He attended the rural school from 1925-30 when the depression of 1929 was in full swing.
“It was rough,” he noted of the time. “People didn’t have anything to do. The banks were closed, and you couldn’t cash a check. If you ate, you had to grow most of it. It affected us, yes and no. Yes, because we were like everybody else. But no, because we were already in poverty, so it didn’t count.”
The Vestal family raised their own pigs and chickens, and had their own garden. “We had to buy staple goods on credit.”
Jack also witnessed the suffering of others during the Depression, including the long bread lines in Electra, and the depths of emotions on the faces of the hungry.
He also witnessed the depths of racism when the KKK would ride down Main Street in Electra on a Saturday night in full robes and flares.
He also knew the meaning of “missed meal colic,” the result of not being near the dinner table at suppertime.
Located five miles east of Electra on Parker Ranch, the homestead also became the place where Vestal learned to work cattle, horses and pigs in addition to work the land. “I learned to work early.”
“We would have a Spring roundup with all the cattlemen in the county,” he remembered. “Then we (he and Buck) would come back and doctor those calves in the summer. He’d rope them and I’d tie them down, and he’d doctor them. It was a team effort.”
On nearby farms, Jack also learned to farm, including cutting grain by hand, harvesting grain and caring for the livestock. He earned $3 a day during harvest, and the work hours was before sunrise to after sunset.
He didn’t mind hitchhiking, either. At the age of 10, Jack thumbed rides from Electra through Fort Worth, Dallas and into Italy, where his grandfather lived. At 17, he also hitchhiked to the Texas Centennial in Dallas. “I didn’t have but five bucks, and lost two of that coming home.”
Jack attended Electra High School from 1930 to 1934 when he graduated. At 16, there was no work available, so he went back to school for a year taking business courses including typing, Gregg shorthand, double bookkeeping and higher math.
“It has been a benefit to me over the years,” he said of the extra education.
But he didn’t take that knowledge and find an indoor job, but instead found himself in the oilpatch making $5.50 a day.
“I started out as a roustabout, but then not only a roustabout but a roughneck, tool dresser, truck driver. I worked for a company that was universal. I had the opportunity to develop in a bunch of skills by the company owner, Jack Brody. If a truck needed to be drove, I could drive it. If a Cat needed to be drove, I could drive it. If a rig needed to be run, I could run it. But it developed through his help. He (Brody) took me under his wings.”
Jack noted that Jack and his brother Burk started the Umble Oil Company in Clara.
During this time, there was no television or radio to keep families entertained. So people would go to town for their social life.
“On a Saturday, if you didn’t get to Electra by 2 p.m., you couldn’t find a place to park, the streets were running over” Jack remembered. “I liked ice cream ... who doesn’t? ... so I would find the ice cream parlor down by the Grand Theatre for a treat.”
One night in the cream parlor, Jack got up from his table to get a second helping, and when he returned he found his seat taken by a young lady that had laid claim to it. “I got even with her later,” he said. The girl, Bessie, and Jack married on July 20, 1938. The union lasted 74 years.
The couple moved to Iowa Park, taking residence in the back porch room of a house that is standing and caddycorner to Park Clinic. There was but one room and a closet. In it was nothing but their bed. There was no air conditioning, or electrical appliances.
“We stayed in it for a little over one year, then I paid down $25 on a seven-room frame house on two lots at 413 W. Washington,” he said. The mortgage was $10 per month on a $650 note. “We paid it out.”
The home was eventually torn down and disposed of in 1952 when the couple built the existing home. They moved to Quail Vally in 1979.
Was Iowa Park like Electra in those days? “No. Iowa Park was a bedtime town.”
In 1937, Jack was attending diesel school in Wichita Falls while working part time in the oil patch. One day, he stopped in at Hogue Filling Station (where D.C. Auto Parts was later housed) and George Hogue informed him one of the employees of George W. Cooper had been hurt while working in the derrick.
“I went down and met Phillip Greer, who was the morning tower driller on George Cooper’s rig. I said I wanted the opening. He didn’t know who I was, and I didin’t know who he was, but he didn’t have a hand to go out at 11 o’clock, and it was dark then. I went out with him and stayed.
“I worked the KMA boom,” he said. “I counted 120 rigs at night. I climbed up the derrick and counted them. It was a good operation. They were good rigs, and good people. It was a typical oilfield boom. Soon as the drilling was over, they moved the rigs out to other places. Most people followed the booms. From Kilgore they came here. From here they went to West Texas. I went to West Texas and spent a couple of nights and came home. I didn’t care for it.”
Asked if he ever went down the Geronimo (emergency) line while working derricks, Jack answered “I never did go down it for necessity, but I went down it for pleasure.”
The rig Jack worked on at the time had a 126-foot derrick and they would pull four joints of drill pipe at a time.
“Most of the time I’d ride the blocks up, and ride it down. But if I was in a hurry I’d just jump out and grab the drill pipe and slide down. You just had to know the drill pipe was dry.”
In addition to working in the oil patch and helping raise a family, Jack also enjoyed playing fast pitch softball, and was also quite the fiddle player, joining with some fellow musicians to earn “pocket spending money” on Saturday night playing in places around Electra.
World War II started in 1941 when Jack was still working in the oil patch with an unsteady income. Opportunity knocked for him in 1942 with the purchase of a pulling machine for $2,500, with the money borrowed from Bessie’s father. “We paid him back and operated it until 1944.
“Then I decided I would buy a spudder, because I had cable tool experience,” he remembered. “And a cable tool rig was more versatile, and it stayed busy more, stayed on the job longer. It was more stable.”
At the time, Jack was servicing wells for Wilder and Underwood, when Mr. Wilder called him and said he had a spudder to sell him. “I told him I didn’t have any money for it, and he said don’t worry about it, take it and pay me when you want to. So I took it and between taking payments and paying him, I paid it out.
“It was a pile of junk, but I managed to piece it together to operate. And I operated that for a few years until I could get a better one.”
Four years after buying his first rig, Jack disposed of it and purchased a new Walker-Neer.
With the new equipment, Jack found plenty of work in the KMA oilfield, and it was there he was approached with the opportunity to buy a lease he was working on. “I told (tool pusher Robert Lovall) I could not afford it. He said no problem, I’ll sell it to you and pay it out as you can. So I did, and it was a lemon. I had to work outside the lease to make the payments.”
Jack operated the “lemon” until 1998 when he sold it. At that time, it was making a little profit and Jack was also engaged in oil operations.
“From there, I spent full time 24/7 as a caregiver to Bessie,” he remembered. “In 2013, that career ended and I was out of a job.
“Today I do most of what I want to do,” he said. “I drive my truck, my car, and I operate a motorized wheelchair called a ‘Bobcat’.” Other than one medication (blood thinner), Jack has no need for additional help.
“In life, there are good times and there are bad times. There are good people and there are bad. But, most of the time life is what you make it. I’ve been there, and I’ve done that.”