The eccentric Texas oilman sat in a dark theater on Oct. 4, 1926 watching overpaid stagehands try to make “The Ladder,” a play about reincarnation, presentable for Broadway audiences.
Edgar B. Davis, whose generosity ultimately landed him in the poorhouse, was born in Massachusetts in 1873. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound giant would have made Harvard a mighty fine lineman, but he chose to sell shoes instead of playing football.
Davis made his first million in footwear but paid for his early success with a nervous breakdown. Following a lengthy stay in a sanitarium, he took a trip around the world to regain his health.
While traipsing through Sumatra, the tourist recognized the commercial potential of wild rubber trees. He shared this insight with a fellow traveler from America, who happened to be a big shot with the United States Rubber Company. One thing quickly led to another, and Davis returned to the Far East with $10 million to invest in his brainchild.
Davis spent the next decade overseas buying, organizing and running rubber plantations. His overjoyed employers gave him a seat on the board of directors and enough company stock to sink a battleship.
Davis cashed out on the eve of World War I for a rumored $3 million. He gave away a third of the windfall to friends and business associates before accepting an invitation from an older brother to visit him in Luling, Texas.
Oscar Davis had more in mind that merely tightening family ties. He wanted an opinion from his sibling with the Midas touch on some Caldwell County oil leases he owned.
Although Edgar knew even less than his brother about hunting underground treasure, he pronounced the sites petroleum rich. Geologists laughed at the ridiculous idea of finding oil 50 miles south of Austin and convinced cautious Oscar to get out while the getting was good.
Davis was happy to take the leases off his sweaty hands. A devout individual who believed God guided his every move, he was certain that he had been sent to Caldwell County to improve the lot of the impoverished people.
But to do that, Davis had to drill for oil. Eighteen months and six dry wells later, the divinely inspired wildcatter was down to his last dollar. His telephone had been disconnected, and the bank would not cash a seven-dollar check for the former millionaire.
Davis and a couple of companions rode out to Stairtown on Aug. 9, 1922 to take a look at his seventh attempt. After a short conversation with the down-in-the-mouth crew, who had no encouraging words for their patient boss, the trio shuffled back to the car.
As Davis drove away, one of the passengers happened to glance over his shoulder at the derrick. At that very moment, the structure began spewing black crude from a pool 2 miles wide and 12 miles long which would produce 43,000 barrels a day.
Davis sold out to Magnolia Petroleum in June 1926 for a staggering $12 million. He celebrated by throwing a free barbecue—some say the biggest ever in Texas—for every man, woman and child in three counties. Estimates of the enthusiastic turnout ranged from 15,000 to 35,000, and no one went home hungry.
Davis rewarded every worker on his payroll with a fat bonus and gave five supervisors $200,000 apiece. He presented a golf course and two athletic clubhouses—one for whites and the other for blacks—to the citizens of Luling and established a foundation with a million-dollar endowment to educate future farmers.
Since his days in Asia, Davis had been fascinated by reincarnation. In the hope of popularizing the concept in the U.S., he hired a retired newspaperman with the same last name to write a play about rebirth.
In “The Ladder,” J. Frank Davis nursed the central characters through four incarnations. From an English castle in 1300, the story leapfrogged to 1670 London, then to 1844 New York before dropping the curtain in modern-day Manhattan.
Davis was thrilled with the finished manuscript and spared no expense in rushing the play to Broadway. After lukewarm receptions in Detroit, Cleveland and Connecticut, “The Ladder” opened at the Mansfield Theater on Oct. 22, 1926.
The theater critic for The World described the dull production as “a large, richly upholstered piece of nothing at all.” But Davis was never one to cut his losses or to chalk off one of his infallible hunches as a mistake.
“The Ladder” staggered through 780 performances often attracting no more than 10 or 20 paying customers. On Nov. 10, 1928, the oilman finally called it quits after sinking a million and a half dollars into the flop.
Davis died flat broke 23 years later without the slightest regret for his missing millions.
“I have no right to any of this money,” the philanthropist once said. “When I share my money, I’m just equalizing things a little.”