A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 27, 2007
Kemp Morgan (legendary superhuman oil driller)

Kemp Morgan is a Paul Bunyan-type of mythological giant, to Texas oil drilling what Pecos Bill is to Texas cowboys. The origin of the Kemp Morgan stories is unknown.

The lack of any mention of Kemp Morgan is a startling omission for the normally reliable Handbook of Texas.


12 July 1925, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Paul Bunyan is the Hero of American Folk-Legend” by J. Frank Dobie, section 3, pg. 11:
It may be news to some, in this connection, to know that Paul Bunyan has come to Texas and the Southwest. He is said to be a favorite, along with the giant Kemp Morgan, in the oil fields, and I wish that I had a parcel of oil field tales about Paul. 

Google Books
Index to Fairy Tales, Myths, and Legends
by Mary Huse Eastman
Boston: F. W. Faxon Co.
2d edition, revised and enlarged
1926
Pg. 183:
(Kemp Morgan, the hero of the oil fields.)

11 September 1927, New York Times, book review, pg. BR10:
Frank Shay, Provincetown, Mass., is preparing a volume to be known as “American Legendary Heroes” and is seeking stories, anecdotes, ballads and information concerning the following legendary heroes: Strap Buckner, Kemp Morgan, Paul Bunyan, Tony Beaver, Old Stormalong, Kwasind and Pecos Bill. Full credit will be given for all material received and used. 

(OCLC WorldCat library record)
Title: Here’s audacity!
American legendary heroes,
Author(s): Shay, Frank, 1888-1954. 
Publication: New York, The Macaulay company,
Year: 1930
Description: 5 p. l., 7-256 p. front., plates 22 cm.
Language: English
Contents: Old Stormalong, the deep-water sailorman.--Kwasind, Hercules of the American Indians.--The white steed, the phantom of the prairies.--Casey Jones, the railroad engineer.--Kemp Morgan, the Texas oil driller.--Strap Buckner, the man who fought the devil.--Pecos Bill, the cowboy.--Paul Bunyan, mightiest of loggers.--Tony Beaver, of Eel River, West Virginia.--John Henry, the steel driving man.

31 July 1931, Rock Valley (Iowa) Bee, “Super-Americans,” pg. 7, cols. 1-2:
In the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma he is a rotary well-digger and calls himself Kemp Morgan.
(...)
Kemp Morgan, the Texas oil driller, was like Old Stormalong in that he too had to put hinges in three different placed on his derrick so that it could be folded up to let the sun and moon go by. It was so high that it took thirty men to man it, fourteen men going up, fourteen men coming down, a man on top and a man on duty. When he brought in his well, “it spouted so high they had to put a roof on it because St. Peter and all the angels were raisin’ all h--l about the oil that was shootin’ through the floor of heaven. It took ten days for the oil to reach the top and then it rained down for three weeks.”
But super-man that he was, not all of Morgan’s wells brought in oil. Occasionally he got a “duster,” a dry hole. But did he abandon it as did other drillers? Not Kemp Morgan! “He knew that no Kansas farmer could ever dig a post hole in his hard bottom soil. He would get his hands around his duster hole and pull it up, four feet at a time, saw it off and ship it to Kansas. Ask any Kansas farmer what he thinks of the “Kemp Morgan Portable Post Holes.”

23 August 1931, Dallas (TX) Morning News, section VI, pg. 2:
FOR the student of folklore there are many interesting heroes to be found in our national Valhalla. On the walls the names of old Stormalong, Casey Jones, Kemp Morgan and Pecos Bill appear.

24 July 1935, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), pg. 10, cols. 3-4:
Paul Bunyan’s Aide
Charles Brown Tells Tales About Kemp
Morgan, Giant Well-Digger

Old and young chuckled to the tall tales told by Charles E. Brown, curator of the state historical museum, about Kemp Morgan Tuesday night on the Memorial Union terrace. Kemp is the hero of all oil regions from California to Pennsylvania and the nucleus of about 600 stories, few of which have been published.

Morgan, giant driller of the oil countries, started working in Paul Bunyon’s logging camp in the Dakotas but punctured the country with such thousands of holes that Paul finally set him to burying the camp’s prune seeds, drilling holes in doughnuts for the cook, and digging water holes for Paul’s famous blue ox, the legend says.

Just as he had completed a well for the camp, gangsters stole it. Kemp followed the trail through the woods and finally located the hole, deserted by the thieves, but badly mutilated from knocks against the trees and useless as a well. Nothing daunted, he chopped it into strips and used these for posts.

However, Kemp really came into his own in Texas, where he was sent by Bunyon to drill oil wells. Inventing all the machinery in the trade, he set the oil business on its feet. Angered one day because he struck rock 3,000 feet down while drilling, he pulled out the cable and slammed it back in through the rock with such vigor that it pulled the derrick and all his men in after it. Discouraged, Kemp was ready to give up, but suddenly received a cable from his men, who had emerged in China and thus started the first oil branch there. It had assumed an international aspect.

29 April 1936, Nashua (Iowa) Reporter, “Tall Tales” as told to Frank E. Hagan and Elmo Scott Watson, pg. 3, col. 5:
Champion of the Oil Fields
ASK any Texas or Oklahoma oil-driller who’s the best in his business and he’s certain to answer “Why, Kemp Morgan, of course!”

Ask him why and he will tell you it’s because Kemp had more unusual experiences than any other seeker after “black gold” ever did.

For instance there was the time Kemp lost his best drill. He was working in soft ground but he noticed that the drill kept going slower and slower the further it went down. Pretty soon it stopped completely. When Kemp tried to pull it out, it was stuck fast. Come to find out that he had hit an alum mine and the hole had shrunk up around the drill so tight that even Kemp couldn’t budge it.

Then there was the time a Texas “norther” swooped down on Kemp’s rig. But it didn’t stop him—no sirree! He just kept on drilling, and brought in a 22-inch gusher. It was so cold that the oil froze as it spouted upward so there was a solid column of frigid oil. Kemp just took out his knife, hacked it off in three-foot lengths and shipped it to the refinery on flat cars.

That was in Texas but Kemp had a funny experience once in Oklahoma. He drilled a well so deep that it tapped a rubber mine ‘way down in Brazil. She began to gush pure rubber, so Kemp just blew his breath on it to make it solid, cut it off in 11-foot lengths and shipped it to the place in Ohio where they made tires for trucks.

When the average driller brings in a “duster,” he moves his rig away from there pronto. But not Kemp Morgan! He knew what a tough time the Kansas farmers had digging postholes in the summer when the ground was baked hard. So whenever he’d strike a dry hole, he’d just take his two hands, pull it up four feet and two inches at a time and saw it off. Then he’d ship a carload of these lengths across the state line where they always found a market.

25 January 1937, San Antonio (TX) Light, pg. 11, col. 1:
As a native and a life-long resident of Texas we had to wait until we read Boyce House’s swell little book, “I Give You Texas,” to learn that Texas oil fields have a legendary character. He is the Paul Bunyan of the oil country and his name is Kemp Morgan. Of course the other legendary or semi-legendary oil fields character was Oofty-Goofty who let you hit him with a baseball bat for a quarter.

According to House, Kemp Morgan was born in East Texas and his earliest exploit occurred when he was only a few days old. Enormous mosquitos attacked the camp and the baby was placed under an iron wash pot. The mosquitos rammed their bills through the pot and Baby Kemp had an ax in his hand with which he bradded each bill as it came through.

Another ancient Texas wheeze has become one of the Kemp Morgan saga and it concerns the time Kemp drilled an oil well atop a West Texas hill. He had drilled to a depth of 3000 feet when a storm came along and blew all the sand away, leaving 300 feet of hole out in the open air. Not dismayed, Kemp, according to the legend, sawed the hole into four-foot lengths, shipped them to Kansas to be sold to farmers for ready-made post holes. In the same part of the Morgan saga Kemp started a well that struck a bed of alum a few hundred feet down and the hole shrank so much it had to be abandoned.

Add to the Kemp Morgan Saga:
The mighty driller announced he was going to drill the deepest well in the history of the oil business.

He built a derrick so tall it had to be taken down so the stars could pass at night, and the crew drilled until they struck oil. One of the workers fell into the well, dropped all the way through to China, and cabled back that the well was producing oil on that side, too.

29 January 1937, San Antonio (TX) Light, pg. 17, col. 1:
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:
Davis:

“I was reading your stuff about Kemp Morgan, the Paul Bunyan of the Texas oil fields, and you had it all wrong about Kemp bradding the mosquito bills under the wash kettle.

“The way it happened was this: Kemp was working inside a boiler up at Terrell, Texas, and a worker outside was shoving through rivets while Kemp bradded from the inside. Kemp worked all morning and when the noon whistle blew Kemp started out for lunch and found he was 300 feet up in the air. He had been bradding mosquito bills all morning.

“I know this is true: Kemp told me about it himself.

“Yours truly,
“BILL WOOLPLEY.”

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (0) Comments • Thursday, September 27, 2007 • Permalink