Billie Sol Estes in his home in Abilene. Lone Star Silver & Assoc ia tes teacher at Nesbitt Rural School. The school district relied on property taxes, but with tax revenues so sharply down, there was, after a while, no more money for Marshall’s salary. Besides, many children had stopped going to school; they were needed to work their parents’ farms. In May of 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Marshall was forced to shut the school’s door. Ten months later, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, telling the nation that all there was to fear was fear itself. In his first hundred days, he pledged to resolve first the banking crisis, and then the farm problem. No one had been hit worse by the Depression than the farmer, Roosevelt said, and few knew it better than Robertson County farmers: a pound of cotton, which had brought them 16 cents in 1920, dropped to six cents by 1932. “That’s the fellow you’ve got to build up,” the President said, “the farmer.” Help came in the form of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, signed by Roosevelt on May 12, 1933, barely two months into his first term. By then Henry Marshall was keeping books for a Franklin gin company, but he soon found himself restless, wanting to make more of his life. Bred into Marshall was a devotion to the soil and to those who worked it. He knew first-hand of their hardships, of his own family’s and his neighbors’ endless struggles, struggles against economic forces beyond their control. In August of 1934, a clerk’s job created by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration opened up in the agency’s Robertson County office. The job paid $900 a year, the most money Henry Marshall had ever made. For the next 27 years, until a lazy spring day in 1961, Henry Marshall was a hardworking, honorable and distinguished employee of the United States Department of Agriculture. BILLIE SOL ESTES obviously had sufficient natural talent a spellbinding combination of evangelical fervor \(he quoted Scripture frequently and taught Sunday school at horse sense, and the highest of moral standards \(he neither drank, smoked or danced, and barred mixed swimming successful swindler almost anywhere. Plus, he just looked country like an unmade bed, said one observer. He’d have been hard pressed, however, to find a spot better suited to his operations than the raw and monotonous landscape of West Texas. Billie Sol arrived in Pecos in 1951, a tubby, near-sighted 26-year-old. He took up cotton farming, and in three years he began to make money and borrow money and to increase his land holdings. But, in 1954, the government’s new cotton allotment program forced West Texas farmers to diversify their crops. Billie Sol reduced his cotton plantings from 1,440 acres to 400 acres, but he wasn’t upset with the new regulations in the least. On the contrary. He set himself up in the fertilizer business. “There are more opportunities in every field today than ever before,” he told a reporter at the time. “You have to walk out on a limb to the far end for that’s where the fruit is. If it breaks, you learn how far to go next time.” He sold it cheap, so cheap that by the end of 1958 he’d become the biggest and nearly the only anhydrous ammonia dealer in West Texas, and among the nation’s biggest. He’d done it by driving out of business more than 80 rival distributors by slashing his price to as little as $20 a ton $70 less than his wholesale cost. He quietly lost millions of dollars in the process but saw the losses as only a short-term inconvenience on the road to a great and glorious future. Next time, he’d know how far to go. By then, the state’s leading politicians, notably senators Lyndon B. Johnson and Ralph Yarborough, were vying for Billie Sol’s attention. A May 1958 memo to Johnson from an assistant, Lloyd Hand, urged him to attend a meeting in Washington between Labor Secretary James P. Mitchell and West Texas farmers concerned about minimum wage regulations. Hand explained that Cliff Carter \(Johnson’s point man had called from Lubbock to warn that Yarborough would be at the meeting. He added, “Cliff’s judgment is to favor the growers and users over organized labor, if necessary.” Hand reported that Carter “states as an example Billie Sol Estes, in whom we are very interested. He has 26,000 acres of crops and stands to lose $250,000 if labor is not available for harvesting.” By the summer of 1959 it was clear to Billie Sol that his fertilizer sales were not turning a fast enough buck. He never seemed to have enough cash on hand, nor was the credit limit extended him by the two Pecos banks sufficient to meet his need. Sure, he ran some profitable sideline businesses, but none brought in the big money needed to expand the potentially lucrative enterprises. He needed a big deal, a really big deal to get him out of the tunnel. There was light up ahead; if he could just hitch a ride on someone else’s credit to get there. That’s when he began talking to farmers about his easy deals on fertilizer storage tanks. His pitch was that he was short of working capital at the moment and simply wanted to use the farmer’s credit to get the tanks. They’d go through the motions of buying the tanks on credit, signing mortgages on the tanks and leasing them back to him. The deal called for the lease payments to equal the mortgage payments, so it wouldn’t cost the farmer a cent. Few farmers resisted the somethingfor-nothing inducement, and Billie Sol soon raised $34 million on non-existent tanks. From there, Superior Manufacturing, a Lubbock firm working with 8 NOVEMBER 7, 1986
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