Economic Perspectives with Hopeton Hay on KAZI 88.7 FM in Austin, TX

The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough

By Hopeton Hay

In The Big Rich author Bryan Burrough chronicles the history of oil in Texas while revealing thebig-rich business and personal lives of the legendary oil men Roy Cullen, H.L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Sid Richardson and their offspring in a manner worthy of the 70’s television series Dallas and Dynasty. Known in their day as the “Big Four,” they built their oil business by never giving up in the face of failure.

The history of oil in Texas did not begin with the “Big Four” however, but with the discovery of oil in Beaumont in 1901 at Spindletop. This discovery forever changed the lives of Texans, Americans, and the whole world in ways people then could never have imagined.

Burrough writes, “Spindletop not only created the modern American oil industry, it changed the way the world used oil…Everything that runs today on oil and its by-products, from automobiles to jet fighters to furnaces, barbecue grills, and lawnmowers—all of it began at Spindletop.”

While Texans may have discovered Spindletop, it was businessmen from the northeast that grew the richest from it. These experienced oil men took control of the industry in Texas bringing capital and years of experience at working in the industry in the northeast and overwhelming the Texans. It wasn’t until the second generation of Texas oil men led by Cullen, Hunt, Murchison, and Richardson that Texas businessmen were able to build wealth of mythical proportions.

Burrough, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine and a native Texan, weaves the tales of the rise of the Texas oil men like a novelist. Cullen developed new techniques to reach oil at depths unheard of and gained the foundation of his fortune when forced to sell the rights of one of his oil fields by his financial partner to Humble Oil for what is equivalent to $250 million in today’s dollars. Hunt came from Arkansas and bought rights to the greatest oil field in history without putting up a single penny from his own pocket. Murchision turned what could have been a financially disastrous investment in building a pipeline to transport oil into a new business, Southern Union Gas, to transport gas to heat businesses and homes. Richardson, a million dollars in debt with creditors on his doorstep, gets a new financial partner who funds what could be his last big play to find oil, and he finds just enough to pull himself from the brink of bankruptcy

The Big Rich is not just about how the Texas oil men built their business, but how they and their children used their wealth to change the political and cultural landscape of America. Cullen’s multimillion gifts in the late 1940s to several hospitals in Houston was the genesis of the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world today. Murchison was an early supporter of anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy donating thousands of dollars to campaigns against his opponents and placing his personal plans at his disposal. H.L. Hunt’s life was the inspiration for the CBS televisions series Dallas and his son Lamar was one of the founders of the American Football League and helped to engineer its merger with the NFL. And Richardson was part of the group of businessmen in Texas that helped finance the rise of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the White House.

Ultimately, The Big Rich is more than a portrait of the life of these legendary Texas oil men, it’s a fascinating look at how Texas oil influenced America.

Hopeton Hay is the host of Economic Perspectives, a weekly talk show on business on KAZI 88.7FM in Austin, Texas.

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