Picacho Oil and Gas: The Story behind a Picture

One of the great photograph collections in our archives is the Rives Studio photographs. The studio was started by Harold L. Rives in 1935 primarily as a portrait studio, but Rives did a lot of contract work as well. Harold Rives was originally from Kentucky and his wife, Helen, was from Pennsylvania. They were married in 1920 and moved to New Mexico not long afterwards, as their first child was born in the state in 1922. Rives was operating a studio in Clayton, New Mexico in 1930 then moved the operation to Las Cruces in 1935. After about seven years of successful operation at 435 Main Street, he sold out and moved his family to Roswell. There he operated a liquor store for many years. The Rives Studio continued operation under that name for many years after Rives sold the business. It closed its doors for good around 1968. Harold Rives died in Sun City, Arizona in 1983. 

While portrait photography was the bread and butter of the Rives StudioHarold took many assignments for hire and left an archive of photography that documents the community, and other parts of the state, during the 1930s and 40s. In addition to tens of thousands of portraits of Mesilla Valley residents dating from 1935 to 1967, our collection contains Rives’ for-hire work, original film negatives, most in 5×7 format, depicting businesses, public and private buildings, parades and other social events, newspaper and insurance work (think automobile accidents), advertising images, surrounding communities, and the college campus.  

Photograph of oil well near Las Cruces

Site of the Picacho Oil and Gas Syndicate well, about eight miles west of Las Cruces, ca. 1940. (Rives Studio Photograph, A74-061-1967)

Full page newspaper ad for Picacho Oil and Gas Syndacate

Full page ad from the August 23, 1939 Las Cruces Sun-News seeking funding for the Picacho Oil Test drilling.

One package of negatives caught my attention. It’s labeled Picacho Oil & Gas and it contains some interesting photographsIn one of them, four unidentified men sit on the porch of a house next to an exploratory oil and gas well about eight miles west of Las Cruces. The photo was made around 1940. The well was operated by the Picacho Oil and Gas Syndicate, amid excitement started in 1939 that Las Cruces would soon have a wealth-producing oil and gas field just outside the city limits. A contract was struck in March 1939 between the syndicate, which was raising funds by selling units of stock in the enterprise to Las Cruces residents, and the drilling company of Kenneth Slack and C.H. Mahres, along with veteran Texas wildcatter B. Churchill Armstrong. Excitement ran high during 1939 and 1940, with newspaper editorials urging residents to buy stock, even while pointing out that such ventures were often shams with the “organizers making money whether oil is struck or not.” News stories on the progress of the drilling appeared with great frequency over the course of about 18 months. A full-page paid advertisement in the August 20, 1939 issue of the Las Cruces Sun-News stated, “If oil or gas in commercial quantities is discovered, Las Cruces will be ‘made’ overnight; businesses will boom; property values will double, triple, quadruple.”

Despite the excitement and high hopes, by late 1940 things were looking bleaker, as the Picacho Oil and Gas Syndicate trustees filed a $25,000 lawsuit against Slack for failing to deliver on his promises. “Hundreds of business men here have money tied up in the test,” a newspaper article reported, “half of the money was paid down.” (Ouch!) In all likelihood, the true aim of all the drilling and testing was not to draw oil or gas out of the ground, but to draw money out of the pockets of gullible residents ready to invest in the scheme. The board of trustees, made up of prominent local businessmen, including George Frenger, Herbert Manasse, and Jess Williams, continued to have faith in the venture despite Slack skipping out on them.

New article about Picacho Oil and Gas Syndicate

Article from the October 20, 1940 Las Cruces Sun-News announcing suit over Picacho oil drilling.

The Picacho Oil and Gas Syndicate continued to seek subscribers into the mid-1940s, but no oil or gas was ever produced from the well – nor any well in Doña Ana County. A 1946 report by the New Mexico School of Mines titled “Future oil possibilities of New Mexico” did not even have a section for Doña Ana County, while a 1949 New Mexico Bureau of Mines oil and gas map of the state showed the Picacho enterprise as an “abandoned hole” drilled to a depth of 3,190 feet. Rives beautiful photograph of the syndicate’s headquarters and exploratory well gives us a rare glimpse into this obscure slice of Mesilla Valley history. 

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