Thomas Harry Barton (1881–1960)

Colonel Thomas H. Barton, a pioneer El Dorado (Union County) oilman and philanthropist, launched his small Lion Oil Company into a major oil company that included exploration, production, marketing, distribution, refining, and research programs.

Barton was born in Marlin, Texas, on September 20, 1881. His father, Thomas Killebrew Barton, was a merchant and farmer in Falls County. At age sixteen, he entered Texas A&M College, but limited funds forced him to leave school early in his second year. He entered the U.S. Army in 1901 and was discharged in 1904 with the rank of corporal.

From 1905 to 1917, he worked in a variety of occupations that included banking and lumber in Dallas County. In 1906, he was commissioned with the temporary rank of captain in the Arkansas National Guard.

With the advent of World War I, he was transferred to the 141st Infantry, Thirty-sixth Division, as a captain in the regular army. Although his unit was shipped to France, he was sent to Camp Stanley, Texas, to assist in organizing and training cavalry regiments. He was discharged in 1919 with the rank of major. Barton remained in the Army Reserve from 1920 until discharged as a colonel in 1936.

Barton arrived in El Dorado in January 1921, only days after oil was discovered. He quickly organized the El Dorado Natural Gas Company and expanded into the Natural Gas and Fuel Corporation in 1924. He served as its president until 1929, when he sold it to the Cities Service Company. During this time, he became the principal stockholder in the struggling Lion Oil Refining Company.

On July 13, 1925, Barton married Madeline Mary Latimer; their plans to travel were curtailed in 1929, when he agreed to serve as Lion Oil’s president. Within three months, Lion had purchased producing leases in the Smackover (Union County) oil field that was literally overflowing with a colossal output of petroleum. The company continued to expand and, in 1935, discovered the third major producing geological zone in the Smackover field.

In 1937, Lion drilled the wildcat discovery well in the Shuler Field, fifteen miles west of El Dorado. Barton leased 7,000 acres and initiated development in a field that ranked second only to the Smackover discovery. By 1955, the company employed 3,000 people, and Lion products were sold by 2,000 service stations across the South.

In October 1941, the company organized a subsidiary to operate the U.S. government’s Ozark Ordnance Plant near El Dorado as a part of the war effort. Ammonia served as the basic raw material for nitrates used in explosives. The ammonia was made from air, water, and readily available natural gas. In 1948, Lion purchased the plant and operated it as an auxiliary Lion Chemical Company, producing ammonia for use in fertilizers.

Barton ran for the U.S. Senate in 1944 against Senator Hattie Caraway. Although his was the best-financed campaign, Barton finished third out of five in the Democratic preferential primary. J. William Fulbright had a strong lead in the first primary and defeated Gov. Homer M. Adkins in the runoff. Barton finished third, Caraway fourth, and J. Rosser Venable last.

Barton’s interest in livestock began as a youngster on the family farm. He worked closely with the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, established the Arkansas State Fair and, through his financial support, the T. H. Barton Coliseum in Little Rock (Pulaski County) which was dedicated on September 29, 1952.

Lion merged with Monsanto Chemical Corporation in 1955, and Barton served on Monsanto’s Board of Directors until his retirement in 1959.

As a humanitarian, Barton contributed considerable time and financial resources that include a medical and research wing at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), Warner-Brown Hospital in El Dorado, Union County’s Barton Library, Union County Memorial Stadium, support for 4-H Clubs and the Boys Clubs statewide, and numerous student scholarships.

T. H. Barton died on December 24, 1960, at home. He is buried in El Dorado’s Arlington Cemetery.

For additional information:
Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. Smackover, Arkansas.

Buckalew, A. R., and R. B. Buckalew. “The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920–1924.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 33 (Autumn 1974): 195–234.

Fowler, John F. Lion Oil. New York: Industrial Publication Co., 1925.

Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Don Lambert
Smackover, Arkansas

John G. Ragsdale
Little Rock, Arkansas


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