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Texas oilman made Aztec oil and gas company possible

James Fenton
The Daily Times

For 25 years, J.P. "Bum" Gibbins owned and operated 22 oilfield service yards in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Gibbins' firm - called J. P. "Bum" Gibbins, Inc. - was one of the largest oil well servicing firms in the U.S.

Gibbins' grandson, J.P. "Pat" McDaniel, said in a phone interview from his office at the Haley Memorial Library and History Center in Midland, Tex., that Gibbins' impact on the oil servicing industry looms large to this day. McDaniel is the director of the center, which is dedicated to the preservation of Southwestern culture.

"I was in diapers riding horseback and going around to these yards with him," McDaniel said. "He was six foot six, or five-18-and-a-half, as he would tell it. The biggest human you ever seen in Midland. He had to stoop to go through the back door to not hit his Stetson hat."

Gibbins, who acquired yards all over the Southwest from Big Lake, Tex., to Cortez, Colo., carried his peculiar nickname because he didn't like being called "Junior," McDaniel said. "He refused to be called 'Junior' and somehow they came up with 'Bum,'" he said. "His father, Jesse Pink Gibbins, died in 1945. ("Bum") started going into the oilfields with him at 15 near Ragland, Oklahoma."

McDaniel said Gibbins hated the government, but loved people and took special care in who he hired.

"He built that loyalty. He never forgot his roots and yet he could be up at four in the morning working the cow line in khakis, working the cattle, and put on a suit and tie for the office or boardrooms," McDaniel said. "Back in those days, the oilfield was a close-knit group. He ran with the titans of the oilfield but he wanted people to know that he appreciated them. He'd visit the yards and sit down, eat lunch with the men, drink some scotch and play a game of cards. He loved people. He was very gregarious and a good judge of people."

At his oil servicing company's height, Gibbins employed about 600 people, McDaniel said. One of those workers was Wayne Sandel, who was yard superintendent for Gibbins in Aztec.

When Gibbins retired in 1963, he decided to give his employees the chance to buy parts of his company rather than allowing his two daughters to inherit the business. It was Gibbins' position as a member of Midland National Bank's board of directors that made the financing possible. The Sandel family's connection to Aztec came in the 1950s when Gibbins gave Wayne Sandel the top job at the yard there.

Jason Sandel, Aztec Well's executive vice president, said that his family's company would not have been possible without Gibbins' help.

The Sandels' oilfield service company at 300 Legion Road in Aztec was founded on June 19, 1963, by Jerry Sandel, Jason's father, and his parents, Sally and Wayne Sandel.

That same year, Frank Sandel, Wayne Sandel's brother, was able to buy a yard in Big Lake, Tex., from Gibbins and start his company, Globe Well Service.

Of the 22 yards Gibbins' owned and sold to his superintendents - Wayne Sandel in Aztec and Buster Crabtree in Kermit, Tex. - only two are still independent, Jason Sandel said. "Of the yards that Bum had, there are only two that are still in existence today that haven't been purchased up by big corporations - Aztec Well and Buster's Well Services," he said. "Buster's is being run by (Crabtree's) granddaughter (Angie Sims) and I'm the grandson of (Wayne Sandel). I guess it's up to us two."

Both Wayne Sandel and Crabtree purchased the yards and equipment from Gibbins the same year.

Oilman Tom Dugan said that as a young man, he worked with some of Gibbins' crews around the San Juan Basin.

"He was a big-time operator," Dugan said. "I worked with some of his crews from time to time when it was still Bum Gibbons, before he sold to Wayne Sandel. I came here in 1952. Wayne (Sandel) worked for him."

Jason Sandel said that his grandparents could not have afforded the purchase without Gibbins' support.

Aztec Well's iconic "Aztec red"-colored trucks came courtesy of Gibbins. The Sandel family did not have the money to repaint the trucks and equipment and the color remains to this day, Jason Sandel said.

McDaniel said the red color was a matter of Gibbins' eye for cost savings.

"The color red was only part of the company color scheme in the early years," McDaniel said in an email. "Usually only the cab of the vehicles, trucks and pickups were painted red. The fenders were black. The company bought very few 'new' vehicles. Most of the company vehicles were used when purchased and therefore needed to be painted - so the choice of red."

Many of the vehicles and trucks were "rigged up" by French Tool and Supply in Odessa, Tex., McDaniel said.

Before he went to work for Gibbins, Wayne Sandel spent every day struggling to find work. "Grandma would get up and make him, Wayne, a sack lunch, and if he didn't get picked up on the job, he'd walk back home and then that's what they'd have for lunch every day is that sack lunch," Jason Sandel said. "If he got picked up on the job, then she went hungry, literally. He worked his way up with Bum and then Bum offered him the ability to buy the business in 1963. They didn't have any money really to speak of to buy the business, so Bum cosigned the loan at Midland National Bank and that's how we got put into the business."

Jason Sandel remembers annual trips out to Midland, Tex., to see Gibbins and pay installments on the loan. Gibbins was chairman of the bank's loan committee.

"My dad remembers very well that once we got into business, since he had cosigned on the loan, we would have to go to Midland once a year to go get a renewal on the loan and Bum wouldn't go to the bank," Jason Sandel said. "He would ask where my mom and my dad were, so he could go and visit the kids and go and hold my sister. My dad has really fond memories of this man who really impacted our lives."

Gibbins devoted the rest of his life after selling off his company to ranching and his family until his death in 1971, McDaniel said.

Clark Dannar started working for Gibbins as a fill-in hand on weekends in the early 1960s when he was a junior at Aztec High School. He got his start in the oilfield service industry with Gibbins by working on pole rigs - well servicing trucks that predated mobile derricks - and stayed on when the Sandels started Aztec Well as a tool pusher and rig manager. He left to work for other companies but came back to Aztec Well in 1997. He still works for Aztec Well as a salesman and consultant.

"Back then, I was just a teenager working with the rig operators and supervisors and Bum would come by," Dannar recalled during a phone interview. "He always wore a regular pair of khakis. Just to have him around the workers was really unusual. He never dressed the part of a man who had money or means behind him. And, at that time, he had the largest well-servicing outfit in the country."

Gibbins started one of the first well servicing companies in the San Juan Basin, Dannar said. Well servicing in the 1940s and 1950s required more manpower, Dannar said, and the pay provided him a steady income that allowed him to buy a house, a boat, a motorcycle and live a respectable life.

"There was a lot more in them days to do a service job on wells, I can guarantee you that," he said. "I was excited to get to work on a small rig and end up back then making $4.50 an hour. I thought, my God, I'm going to get rich."

Servicing a well mid-Century utilized the pole rig, which was a little more than a single-cab pick-up truck with a four-cylander engine that burned butane, Dannar said.

"It had a spool on it for running your poles up and down. It was the latest and greatest back then," Dannar said, chuckling.

Gibbins' desire to ensure his employees could continue to support themselves and their families after his departure ensured that Aztec Well, now 52 years in business, would survive and grow in Aztec. Despite the collapse of oil and gas prices on the commodities market last fall, the company still employs about 800 workers.

Aztec Well has grown into a group of subsidiaries - Aztec Drilling, Triple S Trucking Co., Totah Rental and Equipment, Double M & Filter Services and Road Runner Fuels.

"That's how we started, thanks to Bum," Jason Sandel said. "It was just seven little pole rigs out in the rattlesnake fields out by Shiprock."

Sandel said Gibbins' impact on today's service industry looms large.

"He was the original well servicer," Jason Sandel said. "If there was something wrong with an oil well in the 1950s or even earlier, he's who you would call. They didn't have Key and Basic and all these other companies. You had Mr. Gibbins. So we've grown as an industry really out of who he was."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.