Oil to pecans
In the spring of 2013 I was in Clifton, Texas, visiting a couple of Corsicanans who retired there — Dave Megarity and Sue (Lynd) Megarity —when Dave told me a fascinating story about the discovery of oil in Corsicana on June 9, 1894. His grandfather Atticus “Ad” Megarity, then 17, was part of the Corsicana Water Development Company crew tapping an artesian well on South 12th — a well that kept oozing greasy black goo instead of H2O. Three tries, three oil seeps, and zero cause for celebration. Instead, nearby residents raised holy heck when oil leaked onto their sidewalks and lawns and created a mess the likes of which they had never seen.
Something told Ad he should collect a little of the oil as a souvenir. So he did, filling a discarded whiskey bottle by the side of the road and storing it in his garage. Flash forward to the 1940s, when Ad’s daughter-in-law (and Dave’s mother) Modena Shivers Megarity, who worked as a secretary, thought it wise to type a label for the bottle and paste it on.
So where did the bottle end up after Dave’s parents lived out their lives? At the Second Avenue home of his sister Shirley Ann, sitting atop the refrigerator year after year after year. When Shirley moved to a nursing home and donated her belongings to church and charity, Dave took it upon himself to retrieve the bottle and offer it to the City of Corsicana... and today, 125 years after Dave’s grandfather acted on impulse, the whiskey bottle of “first harvest oil” remains on display at the Visitor Center at the bottom of Beaton.
I told Dave I couldn't thank him enough for the tale. His grandfather was among the men who, unbeknownst to them, were making history even as they royally ticked off the neighbors. Hearing a family story directly linked to the most important event ever to occur in our hometown gives it a human dimension, brings it to life, makes it real.
Oil made our town, and surely locals of every age and color benefited in some small way, whether daddy owned an oil well or not. At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties the population more than doubled as the local economy boomed. Agriculture also played a vital role: Navarro County was one of the leading cotton-growing counties in all of Texas, and in 1901 the city’s cotton gin was the largest in the world.
In the early 1960s I worked at the Daily Sun after school, and one day happened upon a yellowed Chamber of Commerce brochure boasting that in 1928 Corsicana had the highest per capita income in the nation. I later came across an insert slipped into the program for a John Phillip Sousa concert held in December 1925, and it claimed Corsicana was the richest per capita in the whole world. So, not surprisingly, those of who started school some three decades later ran from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich, and we grew up seeing how the other half lived.
Today the Big C of our youth has changed in more ways than one, and not just because Big C is now The Can. We mourn the loss of landmark businesses and houses, but time was not on the city’s side: The 1960s were less than two decades removed from World War II, the post-war boom was in full swing, and progress was the byword. Had the historic preservation movement gained steam 10 years earlier, the monumental Carnegie Library might be a bustling community center with central air and heat, and the neighboring YMCA (that stucco jewel straight out of Santa Fe) a lap-of-luxury retirement home. The picture-perfect renovations of Temple Beth-el and the Palace Theatre show us what historic preservation looks like.
Be that as it may, no city or town on earth is perfect — and home is home. Like most of my CHS classmates, I haven’t lived in Corsicana for more than half a century, yet each time I pass Chambers Creek and exit on Business 45 I feel something at once visceral and subliminal, something hard to describe: call it a fullness of heart, a sense of contentment, a feeling I’m back where I belong — to me, proof that just as “You can take the boy out of Texas but you can’t take Texas out of the boy,” nothing can take the home out of hometown. And if a pecan-laden fruitcake has replaced oil, cotton, and great wealth as Corsicana’s claim to fame, it has given our city just one more superlative to take pride in.
Native Corsicanan Fred DuBose (Corsicana High School Class of 1963) retired as Editorial Director of Reader’s Digest Illustrated Reference Books and is now the proprietor of Run It By Fred.com.