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This Week in Texas History: The down side of an oil boom

By Bartee Haile

In what was becoming an all too common occurrence in the Central Texas boom town, a constable was shot to death in the streets of Mexia on Sep. 23, 1921.

Just one month earlier, the Limestone County community was the peaceful home of 3,500.  That serenity was shattered on a quiet Sunday in August 1921, when a pair of gushers brought oil and a world of trouble to Mexia.

The population soared to an estimated 55,000 as the black gold attracted the usual cast of fortune-seeking characters.  For every roustabout who manned the rigs, there was a bootlegger, gambler, thief and prostitute eager to take his hard-earned pay.

Bars, brothels and gambling dens operated around-the-clock in brazen defiance of state and federal statutes.  Stills concealed in the wooded countryside supplied the river of homemade liquor needed to quench the thirst of the oilfield workers.

Appalled by the crime wave, which the police and sheriff lacked the resources and resolve to combat, the original inhabitants appealed directly to the governor.  Before deciding on a course of action, Pat Neff sent an undercover agent for a first-hand look. The investigator reported within the week that the situation in Mexia was “hard to believe.”  Most mind-boggling of all were two wide-open casinos – the Winter Garden and the Chicken Ranch.

The former was located east of town on the highway to Teague.  Security was tight with patrons searched twice before entering the premises, where they found a well-stocked bar and every game of chance under the sun.  The latter, just inside the adjacent county of Freestone, boasted even more elaborate precautions with a guard tower in the center of the main casino.

Thirteen Texas Rangers shut down the Winter Garden and the Chicken Ranch on the first Saturday night of the New Year.  The governor wrestled with his options for days, hoping to come up with a less drastic solution than martial law, but ultimately decided the chaotic conditions demanded military rule.

Brigadier General Jacob F. Wolters, the hard-nosed National Guard commander who broke the Galveston dock strike in 1919, took charge of the Mexia operation.  Receiving his marching orders on Jan. 11, 1922, he snorted, “Tell the police chiefs at Dallas, Fort Worth and Orange to expect a large number of visitors tomorrow.  Most will come in boxcars.”

Although the editor of the Mexia Evening News criticized the intervention, the majority of residents viewed the coming of the Guard as a necessary evil.  “The proper thing for us to do is to cooperate with the commanding officer,” the mayor advised, “regardless of our own personal opinions and to help the military accomplish their work.”

To speed up the mass exodus, Gen. Wolters issued a “sundown” decree.  Any individual classified by the court as a vagrant had three choices:  pay his fine, work off the cash penalty as a convict laborer or vacate the county by sundown.

Three weeks into the occupation, bootleg booze continued to flow into Mexia from stills in Freestone County.  Wolters persuaded the governor to extend martial law to Limestone’s neighbor but postponed the announcement to add the element of surprise to a sunrise sweep of the moonshine stronghold.

Guardsmen arrested everybody in sight during the dawn raid of Feb. 3.  Fifty-nine prisoners, including several innocent farmers, were detained without charges for ten days.  To many the confiscation of nine stills and 300 gallons of whiskey did not justify the indiscriminate roundup.

Wolters shocked and embarrassed even his most steadfast supporters with a Feb. 15 raid on a Main Street domino parlor.  Defending the bizarre action that resulted in the arrest of 72 players, the general stated, “Loitering in domino parlors within the military district of Mexia will be deemed prima facie evidence that the persons are vagrants.”

Three days later, the governor told a standing-room-only crowd at the Mexia opera house, “I make no apology for sending Rangers to this region or for declaring martial law.”

Neff did, however, promise to withdraw the National Guard as soon as concerned citizens took steps to preserve law and order.

Delegates from every corner of Limestone County met the next week at the Groesbeck courthouse.  The assembly passed the required resolutions in favor of vigorous law enforcement and submitted a formal request for the prompt return to civilian government.

Gov. Neff waited until the Freestone grand jury indicted the alleged moonshiners jailed in the controversial dragnet.  Satisfied the residents of the two counties were ready to rule themselves again, he declared the end of martial law effective Mar. 1, 1922.

Life got back to normal in Mexia, law and order prevailed after the six-week occupation.  The inhabitants have spent the last 101 years trying to live down their town’s once deserved reputation as the “sin city” of the Lone Star State.

“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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