Monday, June 24, 2013

Tilting @ Windmills

A windmill is one of the most energy efficient and ingenious ways ever devised to pump water from the ground. A windmill harnesses the free and renewable power of the wind and uses that energy to lift underground water to the surface for agricultural and other uses.

So say the fine folks at Aermotor and who are we to argue?  Since 1888 they have been turning out windmills by the thousand.  The company that started in Chicago has moved its facilities south over the years from the Windy City to Conway, Arkansas, on to Broken Bow, Oklahoma and finally to San Angelo, Texas.  It is as if the company itself was seeking out the dry and parched land that could most benefit from a windmill.

Today when navigating that plains and prairie of Texas, towns can be identified miles ahead by the ubiquitous water tower.  Back in the day when travel was made by a good pony, the windmill was a welcome sight.  It meant a cool drink and likely a ranch house where a supper might be shared.

Is there a more aesthetically pleasing sight than a windmill, standing tall and proud, sentinel and servant, pumping away as long as the breeze holds up?

This fine example is located off Dove Road in Westlake.  I cycle by it every now and then and it looks particularly handsome in the evening when the western sun hits the blades.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: The Big Rich

The Big Rich, subtitled The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough (2009) is a fascinating read and on my all time Top Ten.  Even if this was fiction, the tales of the Texas oil business would be engrossing, the fact it is true makes the book utterly compelling.

The author focuses in on a handful of the largest Texas oil families and their patriarchs:

Roy Cullen, who had an instinctive nose for where the oilfields lay and in the the 1920's pioneered drilling deeper than everyone else and discovered huge amounts of reserves in Humble, TX.  Cullen was one of the less flamboyant oilmen, amassing rather than squandering wealth, setting up a huge philanthropic trust and donating enormous amounts of money to Houston area hospitals, which to this day are among the world's finest.  Cullen was also an early backer of LBJ.

Clint Murchison Sr. was more the stereotypical Texas oilman.  In the 1930's he was leveraged to the hilt, always running from bank to bank, trying to borrow enough to bring in the next gusher.  Much of his early fortune was built around "hot oil" meaning that despite government caps on production, Murchison's wells kept flowing.  He bought large ranches, including Matagorda Island on the Gulf coast, built huge homes, had a private plane and in general, lived large.  His son, Clint Jr. went on to start the Dallas Cowboys.  Ultimately much of the Murchison wealth was lost and Jr. filed bankruptcy in 1985.

The Hunts took it to a whole other level.  The founder of Hunt Oil, H.L. Hunt was a bigamist (15 children, three wives!) and in the 1920's and 30's discovered oil in East Texas the old fashioned way - by spying on other wildcatters and buying up leases ahead of them.  The character of J.R. Ewing is definitely based on H.L.  Despite building a huge family fortune, the Hunts lost most of it - a combination of buying much of the worlds silver before that market collapsed and having Gadhafi kick them out of Libya.

Glenn McCarthy epitomizes rags-to-riches.  He had $1.50 to his name when he got married but a succession of oil strikes in the 1930s and 40's made him one of the wealthiest men in Texas.  Part of his undoing was the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, which cost him $21 million to build in 1949 but ultimately failed.  Much of the character played by James Dean in Giant is based on McCarthy.

Finally there is the Richardson / Bass empire and one of the few that survived, flourished and for the most part avoided scandal.  Sid Richardson was one of the pioneers to drill in West Texas in the 1930's, which to this day remains one of the centers of the US oil and gas business.   Richardson went on to be a major philanthropist and never married, leaving much of his wealth to his nephew Perry Bass.  Despite sibling infighting, the Bass fortune remains substantial and they have donated millions to Yale University, the World Wildlife Fund and more importantly to our area, Fort Worth.

The Big Rich is, in a word, terrific.  Every page has some event that makes you shake your head, whether it is the Machiavellian scheming, the wilful bankers, the huge bets, the influence of oil in politics (see LBJ and the Bushes), etc.

Burrough's previous work includes Barbarians at the Gate (1990), a chronicle of the RJR Nabisco takeover and for several years was required reading (and may well still be) for every MBA student.  The Big Rich should also be on the college syllabus for every business and petro-chemical major.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Van Cliburn 2013

Before Van Morrison, Van Halen and Uncle Rico's van, there was Van Cliburn.

Everyone in Fort Worth knows who Van Cliburn is.  Almost everyone in Texas knows who Van Cliburn is.  Anyone the US with a fondness for classical music has heard of Van C.  At the height of the Cold War in the 1950's the Russians knew and feared VC, and I am not talking the Viet Cong.

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn, Jr. was a pianist of extraordinary talent who as a raw 23 year old went to Moscow in 1958 and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Khrushchev was none to happy, grudgingly accepting that a Texan had kicked some Commie butt.  Technically, Van Cliburn was not from Texas (born in Louisiana) but like the rest of us, got here as fast as he could.

After Moscow fame and fortune followed and in 1962, Van Cliburn started an international piano competition in his own name which has gained global renown.  It is held every four years in Fort Worth and this year after seeing a couple of documentaries on the competition, we donned our Sunday best and headed to FW to see one of the preliminary rounds.

First off, it is held in the Bass Concert Hall, a magnificent edifice opened in 1998 as part of the renewal of Fort Worth and Sundance Square.  The Bass Family, Texas heirs to an oil empire not squandered (see review of The Big Rich to follow) own much of the real estate in Sundance Square and have perfected the blueprint for downtown renewal.  The took what was a derelict and dangerous section of old Fort Worth and transformed it into a vibrant center with offices, shops, restaurants, museums and the aforementioned concert hall.

Secondly, our seats were good, maybe too good.  We were almost under the imposing Steinway.  If one of the competitors got a little carried away and did some kind of wild Jerry Lee Lewis maneuver, we would be crushed... but at least the kids would be adopted by the Bass family and Great Balls of Fire would never sound the same...

We got to see two Italians and a Russian and it would be hard to pick a winner.  Where one was brash and loud, the other soft and melodic, etc. There were 30 invited entrants in all, three squaring off each session so the competition goes on over several weeks.  We joked that we should become a host family, just to see the face on the maestro when he / she got a glimpse of our out of tune battered old upright.

None of our three made it past the first round.  The eventual winner was Vadym Kholodenko from Kiev.  The Russians have exacted their revenge - in fact a Russian has won the competition four of the 13 times.

Sadly, VC was not at the 2013 competition.  He passed away in Feb 2013, aged 78.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Nothing Ever Happens to People Like Us...

... Except we miss the bus" - The Buzzcocks

This historical marker is on my bike route and a few weeks back I stopped to take a gander.  That is two minutes of my life I will never get back.  Buck T. King (great name, by the way, should have started a country band) built a house here in the 1920's and it burned down somewhere between then and 1942 when ol' Buck sold out.  That's it, end of story.  A plaque marking Pete Shelley missing a bus in Manchester would have been way more exciting.

In fairness, it is not an official State of Texas Historical Marker, which usually commemorate something of mild significance.  This one was put up by the City of Westlake - there is probably one outside the Jonas Bros. house as well.

For some real fun:

Mighty stuff.  Killer bass line.  Do you think they listened to Iggy and the Stooges much?
Oh and Green Day should be sued for blatant thievery, plagiarism and for being obnoxious.