MERKEL -- Brothers Derrell and Donnie Riggan's small stripper well operation hit such hard times in 1998 that they opened a Pizza Pro restaurant in Merkel to keep making a living.
Now, yesterday's pizza deliverymen are today's millionaires, thanks to their chancing into a deal that led to a huge oil find in Howard County.
Oil prices that had dipped to $9 a barrel in 1998 had the brothers scrambling.
"Me and Donnie were the delivery boys," Derrell Riggan said. In fact, Donnie Riggan was looking at a career switch to teaching.
That was before the Guitar 13-1 came roaring in and the brothers went from hard times to the big time. Instead of stripper wells producing up to 10 barrels of oil per day, the brothers had their hands on a 300-barrel-per-day producer.
The Riggans credit their success to their partners.
"Without a few pieces of that puzzle, we probably wouldn't have had near the success out there that we had," Derrell Riggan said.
In one way or another, the Riggans have been involved in the oil business since their teens, when they started roughnecking on drilling rigs. Donnie Riggan became an oil operator in 1990, and Derrell Riggan in 1993.
In 2000, Abilene rancher Phil Guitar urged the Riggans to look for oil at a location on one of his family's sprawling ranches, about six miles northwest of Big Spring. Cobra Oil and Gas Corp. of Wichita Falls had drilled there in the mid-1990s, but had come up dry. After that, several major oil companies had passed on the prospect, Guitar said.
"It was open to the world, and nobody in the world wanted to touch it," Guitar said.
Cobra had sought oil 10,000 feet down, a deeper depth than the Riggans would explore. The Riggans were interested in the possibilities at 5,600-5,700 feet.
So they re-entered a well where Cobra had come up dry in 1996. Re-entering a well is much simpler than drilling a new hole, Derrell Riggan said. Drilling out the cement plug used to cap the well is the major task because the hole is already drilled, he said.
For two days in March 2001, nothing flowed but water -- water the venture partners hoped was injected during the 1996 drilling to force oil to the surface.
Late the second day, field man Billy Haddix thought he detected a bit of oil in a clear glass bottle he had used to catch some of the well's flow. Turns out he was right, Derrell Riggan said.
"That well was flowing (oil) the next morning," Derrell Riggan said. "And I guess it flowed the next 6 to 8 months, pretty much just however much we wanted to make."
A flowing well doesn't need a pumpjack to bring oil to the surface.
That discovery well, known as Guitar 13-1, was the first of almost 50 drilled in the Would Have field before the first dry hole.
The well started producing 300 barrels a day, he said. Most of the subsequent wells drilled in the Would Have field have been similarly strong producers.
"It's a nice field," said Morris Burns, executive vice president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, "but it's not that rare."
It would be rare in the Abilene area, but not in the Permian Basin, he said.
Through March of this year, the field had produced more than 1.7 million barrels, enough to raise the Riggans into a new league in the oil business.
Compounding the Riggans' and their partners' good fortune was the rebound of oil prices in the early years of the new century.