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Oil Boom Overwhelmed Homer: Influx of fortune seekers too much for town to handle

By Wesley Harris
Claiborne Parish Library Historian

The oil boom of the early 20 th century brought tremendous change to Homer. Unanticipated problems triggered by the discovery of oil in Claiborne Parish required officials to quickly take on major infrastructure projects to keep up with the resulting population explosion.

Homer’s water and sewer systems, housing, and basic services were insufficient to handle the surge in people and business activity. Citizens endured many inconveniences until projects to improve conditions could be completed.

The parish clerk of court, in a courthouse office too small to handle business under normal conditions, hired additional staff. Potential land buyers and leasers lined up impatiently to wait their turn to get inside to peruse property records. Imagine Homer’s courthouse square with no place to park, nowhere to eat, and business establishments packed to overflowing.

Homer was a happening place, and all people could think about was oil. “The people have quit talking about [the great] influenza [epidemic] and the [world] war,” the Guardian-Journal reported in January 1919, “and are occupying their time in discussing the material, the commercial side, of their economic life.”

In December 1919, the Shreveport Journal reported, “Twelve months ago Homer was the center of a rich agricultural belt. The town was prosperous, but there was no fast growth and no heavy influx of people. The town was self-sufficient. It had ample facilities for caring for its permanent population, and such transients as might visit it.”

That condition changed when the Consolidated Progressive Oil Corporation brought in an oil well four miles from the town center. Another by the Rowe Oil Corporation closely followed. Doubting the successful wells would bring significant change to Homer, little was done to prepare for the torrent of people who would flood the town.

“But all at once they began to come, and they have been coming ever since,” the Journal reported. Thousands flocked to town to take advantage of the economic opportunities. The numbers overwhelmed the railroad to Homer to the point passengers rode in box cars seated on wooden coffins for lack of sufficient coaches. Most found few options for lodging and meals once they arrived. The Journal explained, “…there are 5,000 people living in a town where housing and other facilities are only able to care for a fifth of that number. There is building on every side, but before a foundation is built for a new residence it has already been rented and there is no apparent relief in sight.”

Many oil field workers and their families lived in tents scattered around the courthouse square. Open air stands popped up on the square to sell burgers, hot dogs, and chili to the newcomers. Some businessmen established their offices in Shreveport and commuted by train to Homer each morning and returned to their accommodations in the big city at night.

It was the roads and rails the oil field bosses complained about the most. The Shreveport Journal explained, “There have been bad roads in oil fields in all sections of the United States. Every oil field has its stories of bad railroad facilities and congested terminals. But there was never an oil field faced with as bad roads nor as intolerable railroad service as is now facing the Homer district.”

Homer’s main streets consisted of mud so deep “that it requires four mules to pull a wagon with only a few hundred pounds of supplies.” Automobiles were practically absent from the streets due to the mud. It took one vehicle coming from Minden seven hours to reach Homer due to the poor road conditions. No paved road existed between the two towns. The growing number of oil companies shut down some wells temporarily due to the inability to get supplies overland from Minden.

The only rail line, the Louisiana & North West, was in such poor condition that three or four derailments or other accidents occurred weekly. One severe December 1919 wreck was bad enough to require a temporary line around the accident scene to continue passenger service in and out of Homer.

Homer’s Guardian-Journal and the Shreveport papers could barely keep up with the demand for advertising space as land speculators, investors, oil corporations, and supply companies promoted their services.

Increased water usage in Homer led to shortages and another deep well was drilled. Homer citizens voted in November 1919 to sell $180,000 in bonds to finance expansion and improvement of the sewer system and update the water plant. The parish voted to raise $500,000 for road improvements. The Louisiana & North West set about repairing the line from Homer to Gibsland. Gradually facilities improved and Homer and Claiborne Parish prospered.

Homer kept its “clean morals” throughout the boom. Notably absent among the hubbub were dance halls, pool rooms, and burlesque shows, all commonly found in infant oil towns.