100 Years of Risk, Sacrifice, & Opportunity

The year 2020 marked 100 years since Walt Helmerich and Bill Payne shook hands in partnership during the most dynamic and risky era of the American oil industry. Today, Helmerich & Payne, Inc. is a global leader in contract drilling, safety, and technology. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture
The company walked a long, hard road that started with humble beginnings. The story of how Walt Helmerich got into the oil industry is emblematic of how H&P spent a century adapting and surviving. To help mark its centennial, H&P engaged Müllerhaus Legacy to develop its corporate archive and institutional history.

Risk, Sacrifice, and Opportunity

All Walt Helmerich Jr. had ever wanted to do was fly. He loved being up in the sky, dodging clouds, defying gravity, climbing, diving, and climbing again. When he was up in the air, he felt he was in his natural element. By the time he had reached his mid-20s in the late nineteen-tens, he’d already spent thousands of hours in the air training recruits at Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the First World War.

Walt Helmerich Jr. pictured during his barnstormer days with his Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.”

In the excitement that swept the nation following the end of the Great War, Helmerich met and fell in love with Cadijah Colcord, the daughter of Oklahoma oil pioneer Charles F. Colcord. Colcord had made his fortune in the Glenn Pool oil boom south of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Well known as a powerful and indomitable man, he did not approve of his daughter’s romance with the young Army aviator. But Helmerich was in love, and Cadijah was too.

Walt Helmerich Jr. in uniform, 1917

True to his determined risk-taking nature, Helmerich loaded Cadijah in a car full of friends and took her to Lawton, Oklahoma, where they eloped in February of 1919.

Helmerich’s gamble paid off when the Colcords reluctantly accepted the marriage—but not without reservation. Colcord remained concerned about how Helmerich would provide for his daughter once his term with the Army Air Corps ended. For his part, Helmerich had one path in mind for success in life—aerobatics.

Following his honorable discharge in April of 1919, Helmerich and two Army buddies, Audrey Graham and Ira “Biddy” Bidwell, formed a barnstormer troupe. The friends earned a living traveling from town-to-town doing shows for the locals. On May 15, 1919, while preparing to perform at a show near the Great Salt Planes in north-central Oklahoma, Helmerich offered Cadijah and her sister, Harriet, a ride in the troupe’s Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” bi-plane. Once safely back on the ground, Helmerich and the sisters turned the plane over to Graham and Bidwell for their performance.

Walt and Cadijah pictured in 1919

Within minutes, however, thousands of spectators were on their feet in shock as they witnessed the Jenny spiral into the ground, tumbling from a height of 1,500 feet. Graham was killed instantly. Bidwell died the following day. The disaster was a result of insufficient repair work.

The fact that the failure might have occurred with Cadijah and Harriet onboard minutes earlier was not lost on Helmerich.

In a spectacular and public fashion, his father-in-law’s concerns for his daughter’s security were borne out. Along with the lives of his closest friends, Helmerich realized he had also lost his career path.

He had always been so sure about where he was going and what he was doing. But the deaths of his friends affected him deeply. Uncertainty felt foreign to him, yet he couldn’t shake the sense that something even more personal had died that day with his companions. As a newly married man, he knew he simply couldn’t continue to take those kinds of risks. This tragedy had hit way too close to home.

As he traveled north on the funeral train returning the bodies of his friends to their families in Kansas City, Helmerich reluctantly decided to give up his dream of a career in aerobatics. Ultimately, Helmerich knew his decision would bring great relief to Cadijah and her family. He didn’t know what his next step would be, but he knew his days of flying were over.

While in Kansas City, Helmerich met with Cadijah’s brother, Ray Colcord. By now, all the family knew of Helmerich’s decision to quit barnstorming. And Ray had a proposition waiting for his brother-in-law. Ray owned a small oil refinery nearby and needed help overseeing the drilling of several shallow wells near Osawatomie, Kansas.

Helmerich had considered going back to Chicago, where he’d grown up, to pursue a career with his father at Western Electric. Although drilling holes in the ground was nothing like soaring above it, something about the oil business appealed to Helmerich’s adventurous, risk-taking personality. So, he accepted Ray’s offer never imagining he would end up doing much more than just overseeing a few shallow oil wells in Kansas.

Within months, Helmerich and Ray Colcord moved to South Bend, Texas, where they drilled the J.J. Scott No.1 striking oil at a depth of 1,900 feet. The well came in at the rate of 300 barrels of oil a day. Although a measured success, it was enough to encourage Helmerich to go all in. By combining what little he had in savings with money gained from selling his share of a fig orchard, Helmerich was able to buy out his brother-in-law for $9,920. By December of 1919, he owned his rig and tools. There was no turning back. Walter H. Helmerich Jr. was officially an oilman.

The following year, Helmerich partnered with petroleum engineer, Bill Payne to form Helmerich & Payne, Inc. H&P would spend the next century experiencing tremendous growth developing technologies and safety standards that would  revolutionize the industry. But growth in the oil business is never tracked in a straight line. Not unlike the experience of early barnstorming, it’s a risk-filled continuum with dips and turns, peaks and valleys, ups and downs, fits and starts.

Over the years, H&P has endured declining rig counts and plunges in revenues during the difficult times only to then struggle to keep up during the good times. With a grit and determination rooted in the depths of the oil field and with an adventurous spirit as high as the sky above it, H&P always finds a way—no matter how great the challenges.  

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This article first appeared in Müllerhaus's publication Legacy Journey Quarterly. For information regarding any of the projects mentioned in this publication or to inquire about Müllerhaus Legacy or our services, please contact Ally Seifried at 918-747-0018 or Alexandra@Mullerhaus.net

Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture