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In the 1910s and ’20s, Texas and Oklahoma experienced a boom. In 1911, oil was discovered in Wichita County. By 1918, three oil fields were discovered in a small Texas county bordering Oklahoma, leading to an influx of prospectors looking to get in, get rich, and get out. New refineries were opened, new railways were built. Things are looking up. As historian Jahue Anderson explains, “a citizen of Wichita Falls can walk downtown, ride a streetcar, ride through irrigated fields. […] take a leisurely cruise across the lake, or enjoy dancing around musical acts.”
But with the arrival of new residents and the establishment of new businesses, the space is very large, especially in a boomtown, Wichita Falls. Pre-boom, Wichita Falls had about 8,000 residents, but between 1910 and 1920 the population expanded fivefold, to about 40,000. And although the growth represents new opportunities for workers, it also represents new boundaries for scammers. As described by Roger M. Olien and Diana Davids Olien in their historical study of the oil promoters, the discovery of new oil fields also means an increase in the industry of trust games. But one conman who went to Wichita Falls left more than empty pockets in his wake. He also left the city with one of its most notable landmarks —the “smallest skyscraper in the world.”
Wichita Falls needs more office space to accommodate new businesses. The oilman JD McMahon had a plan (some sources note that McMahon may not be his real name; many details of his biography and his plan have been lost to history): he would build a skyscraper, a huge building in the city’s downtown, large. enough to house the offices of all the nouveau riche business executives.
McMahon, like most Wichita Falls residents, is from out of town. As historian Matthew Day explains,
the oil boom across the Texas Plains has attracted national attention—that the idea of big investors buying a local oil conglomerate brings a new realm of possibilities for the regions they serve.
Even one of the country’s most famous families, the Guggenheims, “considered the Texas Plains oasis a prime location for diversifying their operations.” Having already made a fortune in mining, oil seemed a logical next frontier. “The volatility of oil and gas operations can produce higher profits than hard-mineral extraction,” Day said, making investments in the petroleum industry more attractive.
McMahon relentlessly sold stock in his business, raising $200,000 from investors who hoped it would be their chance for riches. He even had blueprints in hand, large plans showing the majestic building rising in the center of the city. But as the legend says, the scale of the blueprints is lost. A 480-foot building is actually 480 inch. The resulting building was a compact four stories high and about twelve feet wide and twenty feet deep. Hardly the Empire State Building. By the time it was completed in 1919, McMahon was long gone, leaving his small skyscraper as a memento.
But the building isn’t the only reminder of the area’s boom, and eventual bust, years. What appears to be an opportunity for many is actually lowering prices. As Day wrote, one of the consequences was a rise in land values, and although oil production increased, “prices peaked at about $2 per barrel in 1926 before falling by about a third in 1927.”
And as Anderson explains, an irrigation project that would have created twenty to forty acres of farmland also faltered during this period, partly as a result of rising land costs and partly because “[o]vested interests and large landowners want to keep the land for oil leases.” In the end, the project may be the product of boom excitement rather than a deep interest in agriculture, since the quality of water and soil seems secondary to the promotion of the idea of ”comfortable, comfortable country houses” for “those citizens to cultivate the land, pay taxes, and generate the income needed to run the project.”
Although many were enriched by the oil boom, in the end “thousands of ‘suckers’ were separated from their money,” writes Grossman. And although the smallest skyscraper, now called the Newby–McMahon Building, was originally just a boomtown scam, it is now a landmark and popular tourist attraction for Wichita Falls.
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