The 101-Year-Old Oil Woman Who Found Millions in Her Mailbox

At 101, Anne Friar Thomas has seen lots of booms go bust in the Texas oil patch.

But the trouble out there in the Eagle Ford shale fields is getting mighty close to home. In fact, it’s reached her mailbox.

Like other big landowners here in DeWitt County, Thomas has profited well from the shale-oil rush. Every month, the royalty checks arrive -- payments for letting the likes of Marathon Oil Corp. and EOG Resources Inc. drill on her spread near the head of the Old Chisholm Trail.

But now, with oil down to $50 a barrel, those checks have shrunk by as much as a third.

Thomas says she still has money, and as her daughter Missi puts it, she doesn’t worry about how much comes in. Over the years, her family has made millions. It’s the shale-patch communities that have come to rely on people like Thomas for property taxes and philanthropy that are starting to feel the pinch.

“We do things with our money,” Thomas, who’s been in ill health, said in an interview from her ranch-style house back in late January. “We don’t pile it up.”

The land has been in Thomas’s family since before Texas became a state in 1845, and she’s grown comfortable following a family rule: buy land, and never sell it.

With the shale boom, land values here soared. If oil prices stay low, those values could wobble -- and so could property tax receipts, said County Judge Daryl Fowler. “I won’t say I’m not losing sleep over it,” he said.

In Texas, landowners typically get up-front lease fees of several hundred dollars per acre and then collect royalty payments of 20 to 25 percent of the value of the crude produced on their land. While the drop in oil has taken a bite out of royalties, increased output has made up some of the difference.

Financial Security

The regular checks have provided financial security for Thomas and her family of one daughter, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren. The money has also enabled her to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Hospice of South Texas and the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum, which celebrates the American cowboy.

Another DeWitt County landowner, William Leske, said that back in 2009, his monthly checks from Devon Energy Corp. and ConocoPhillips totaled about $400,000. Over the winter, the figure was about half that, he says.

“We call it mailbox money,” Leske said by telephone. “You get a check every month, it arrives in the mail and you don’t do anything for it.”

Already, though, charitable donations have slowed in Texas and in Pennsylvania, another state with big shale formations, according to data compiled by Atlas of Giving, which tracks philanthropy. Nationwide, giving will decline 3.2 percent in 2015, the Dallas-based firm projects.

“I believe we should expect to see a more pronounced effect in the coming months -- especially if oil prices do not experience a rebound soon,” Rob Mitchell, CEO of Atlas of Giving, said via e-mail.

Borrow Money

Hospice of South Texas may have to borrow money to finish building a new inpatient facility. Some donors delayed their contributions because of dwindling royalty checks, according to executive director Terry Robinson. Some have asked for six months to see if oil prices rebound.

“Every dollar is important,” Robinson said by telephone.

Statewide, tax collections from oil and natural gas production fell to $352 million in January from $583 million in August, the Energy Information Administration said March 12.

State Woes

Similar stories are unfolding in North Dakota and Alaska. Oil royalties and taxes, which account for 89 percent of Alaska’s general fund, have been cut in half as crude has fallen, prompting a hiring freeze and raising the possibility of budget cuts, according to Jim Stouffer, royalty accounting manager for Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas.

“Everyone hopes that by spring or early summer we regain some of this back,” Stouffer said. “But you can’t pay your bills on hope.”

Back in DeWitt County, Leske says he’s seen this all before. “That’s the way the business is,” he says. “It’s boom and bust forever for everybody.”

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