Are you an explorer? Me, not so much, except when it comes to a bit of history in which I am interested. Since I am not a native New Mexican, I have much to learn about the Land of Enchantment, especially Artesia and the rich oil and gas industry, all of which most of us take for granted.
For example, I knew Artesia’s name related to the presence of artesian water wells, a common regional fact that almost everyone knows; however, by exploring some archives at the Artesia Historical Museum, I found that there were actually two names that preceded Artesia.
The town’s first name, “Miller”, was given around 1894, perhaps named after a railroad brakeman who traveled between Roswell and Carlsbad. Another possible namesake could have been an engineer who worked on constructing the water stop, siding, and wood around the railroad tracks. The second city name, “Stegman”, came from the married name of the postmistress, Sallie Chisum Stegman. With the establishment of a post office, the Artesia Townsite Company and Artesia Improvement Company worked to build a proper settlement.
Artesia was on its way to fulfilling the vision of those who believed in the prosperity of the area. As more settlers came to the small community, drilling water wells became a priority. In 1903, the town assumed its present name in after the discovery of an artesian aquifer in the area. The drilling of the artesian wells was successful most times; however, at other times they were unproductive because owners discovered the presence of oil which contaminated the water wells. In 1909, the Hammond-Brown well was originally drilled as a water well, but at 947 feet, the drillers struck oil. The water well was cased off, and the oil well continued slow and steady production until 1932 when it was plugged.
In 1913, another water well, the Belt Well, was drilled. At 1,300 feet this well was switched over to an oil well that was used to lure settlers and speculators to the area. The well would be capped off for several days before visiting groups would tour the site so when it was uncapped the pressure would cause it to blow, thus creating a spectacular demonstration. This helped to entice investors and independent oil drillers to the Pecos Valley.
Other smaller wells were instrumental in opening the Artesia Oil Field. One of the first shallow wells was drilled in 1924 by Thornton “Duke” Ferson, who died only one month after drilling the well. Another well drilled by the Kansas-New Mexico Oil Company in 1919 experienced mechanical problems at 583 feet. The company shot the well with nitroglycerine to increase productivity, but it only deepened it to 611 feet. It was finally capped in 1922.
Martin Yates, Jr. and his wife Mary settled in the Artesia area. Martin was a part of the Illinois Producers investors group who had drilled the Illinois #1, a commercially unsuccessful oil well, and Illinois #2 which produced gas. The company geologist was uncertain where to drill next, so Martin and Mary went on a drive. Mary had an uncanny intuition and chose the site, marking it with the heel of her shoe. Her intuition was correct, and Illinois #3 was drilled with gas from Illinois #2. This was the first commercially successful oil well in this area, and it started an oil boom in the Artesia area, resulting in the creation of the petroleum industry in Artesia. Investors and drillers began to move to Artesia to take part in the new industry.
By the end of the 1920’s, Artesia’s population had nearly doubled in size. The drilling activity resulted in company communities being built up around the drilling areas. For example, in the late 1930’s the Illinois Company, located 22 miles outside of town, established the Illinois Camp. Many “youngsters” that still live in the area remember riding the school bus home with friends to Maljamar and other company communities. Families of these children were close and would often get together on the weekends for fun actives like fish frys and cookouts.
Of course, with the production of oil came the need for a refinery. The Illinois Oil Producer built Artesia’s original North Plant in 1925. Continental Oil Company bought the refinery in 1931. In 1946, the refinery was shut down and dismantled.
Artesia’s refinery was not always called “Navajo”. In 1931, the town’s second refinery was built by Maljamar Oil and Gas. It was known as the Malco Plant because of the Maljamar pipelines east of Artesia.
Today’s refinery, located on East Main Street, started in 1939 as the Nu-Mex Asphalt and Refining Company by Joe Head.
In 1941, the name changed to the New Mexico Asphalt and Refining Company. R.O. Anderson, a wealthy oil man, purchased the refinery in 1953 and returned the named to Malco in memory of the former refinery.
In 1968-1969, Holly Corporation purchased the Artesia refinery. Clarence Norsworthy, an investor in Holly, had a son, Lamar, who later became Chairman of the Board. Lamar named the refinery “Navajo” because of its location in New Mexico, not knowing anything of New Mexican geography. Nevertheless, from the 16,000 barrels produced per day in 1969 to the 105,000 barrels produced today, Navajo Refinery has helped the City of Artesia and the surrounding areas to grow immensely.
Yates Petroleum, EOG, HollyFrontier and all its subsidiary companies, The Chase Corporation, Concho, Marbob, ParFive, Don-Nan, Halliburton, Wilbanks, Halliburton, KC LightTowers, and many other businesses have moved in, expanded, and multiplied their organizations many times over. These businesses care about our city and surrounding areas and help donate to worthwhile projects to benefit all. Not only that, these groups have provided numerous resources to help our schools, to help our hospital and other organizations, and to feed the hungry and to provide needy. What hopes and dreams will become reality next for Artesia as it expands?
The early settlers and drillers had the hope of bringing about prosperity for themselves and their families, but they could never have imagined what those dreams would become. Talk to some of the people around you who have a few more years behind them than you do and have seen some of these things come to pass. Ask, “What was it like when. . .?” You will likely be surprised by the answers you will get!
All photos are courtesy of the Artesia Historical Museum & Art Center