- Written by Todd Moning
In the 1920s Glen Key’s parents preached two simple ideals: Work hard and get an education.
Glen, one of four children, did not disappoint.“I was born at a time and came to maturity at a time when opportunities were everywhere.” Or maybe he just knew where to find them.
An opportunistic time?
Glen, who turned 90 last November, grew up on a 160-acre farm about 5½ miles from Chandler, Oklahoma.
His family didn't have many of the modern conveniences we know today.
In the early ‘20s, cash was nearly non-existent for farmers, Glen said. “Many farm families lived on less than $1,000 income. But they raised a vegetable garden, had hogs to butcher, chickens and eggs to eat and all the milk and cream they could use. Most of us did not know we were poor.”
The Keys cooked and heated with wood, except in the summer, when they used a kerosene cook stove. Kerosene lamps served as lighting.
They drew water from a well by pulling a bucket to the surface using a rope. The family outhouse lay … well, out back.
They had no television, radio or daily newspaper to stay in touch. The party phone was their only connection to the outside world.
Electricity wasn’t available on their farm until 1928 or 1929. The electric pump for the well and the electric motor for the cream separator sure made chores easier. More important, the family had lights and a new Frigidaire refrigerator. “You never realize the importance of refrigeration unless you have grown up without it,” Glen said.
Such was the opportunistic time that framed Glen Key's early years. One gathers that this man would have considered any time in history a time of opportunity.
Starting on the farm.
He began milking cows at age 5 — “I did not have to learn, I was born knowing how,” he said.
Oats, hay, kaffir corn and cotton were the family's main crops. Picking cotton involved the most labor. “It was easy to bend over until your back would no longer bend, then drop down on your knees and crawl. Then, your knees would get raw and your fingers would bleed from the cotton burs sticking them.”
Glen did not confine his work to the farm. During the oil boom of the 1920s he helped his father dig rocks out of the hills and load them onto a Ford Model T truck. The rocks would be used to form a concrete base for gas engines on oil drilling rigs.
As a teen he cut weeds and grass around guard rails and bridges. “We worked eight hours a day, five days per week and were paid $5 a day. It was very good money for 1934.”
Glen may have grown up without a surplus of material things, but he never lacked ambition or instincts for seizing an opportunity at the right moment.
After graduating from high school in May 1934, he wanted to attend business school in Oklahoma City but needed a job to help pay for it.
He found one, running a hand-operated elevator in the seven-story Federal Emergency Services building. “It gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with the up-and-coming politicians of the period and some of them were the leaders in the ‘40s.”
His pay: $15 for a 40-hour week. In those days you could get a family-style meal for a quarter, a quart of milk for a dime or a good suit for $15, he said.
He attended Hill’s Business University from September 1934 to February 1936, studying accounting.
In February 1936 he hired on as bookkeeper for Aetna Life Insurance Company. Primarily, the position involved opening and distributing mail and making bank deposits. His pay: $60 per month.
Toiling in oil
In November 1936, Glen had surgery for appendicitis. Forever a numbers man and records keeper, he still has the hospital bill. The operation cost $219.50, including $150 for the doctor and $42 for the room.
A tip from a fellow patient in the hospital led him to a position with Reed Roller Bit company on Oil Field Row. Reed was an international distributor of oil drilling equipment in Texas.
In 1937 Glen started servicing north Texas, selling and servicing equipment used on oil drilling rigs, such as weight indicators, mud gauges and tool joints.
From the late 1930s to the mid-1940s he ran a Texas-based operation that sold fuel on consignment. He received gas, diesel and kerosene by rail car and made 1-1/2 cents for each gallon of fuel he sold.
Then World War II came on. “We were 75 miles from refinery, and the government issued an edict that said you could not transport gas, diesel or kerosene by railroad anything less than 100 miles. That meant we had to get transport trucks in order to pick up our products.”
He obtained a loan to purchase a fleet of trucks, but didn’t use them for transporting fuel. From 1946 to ’53 his Oklahoma-based business transported oil rigs, set them up for drilling, tore them down, and moved them to the next site.
In 1953 he sold the Oklahoma transport business to Transport Company of Texas, for $35,000. He used this money to partner with four others in forming the Picket Drilling Company on Jan. 1, 1954.
Their company sunk a few wells and had some oil coming in, but not enough to pay the bills. Glen considered trying to persuade his partners to cut their losses.
Then, on Nov. 1, 1954, a Florida company purchased their outfit. It was a lucrative deal for Glen and his partners.
After the sale, Glen was able to buy a bank in Wellston, one of seven Oklahoma banks he would have a hand in buying or building. He also purchased a 1,880-acre cattle ranch in Chandler.
Eventually, he would build two banks in Sulphur (1963 and 1972) and two in Poteau (1970 and 1980). In November 1967 he bought Farmers State Bank in Quinton.
Looking back, he sums up his business undertakings like this: “Time proved that I was not always right, but during my early adult years a failure was only temporary.”
Editor's note: Glen R. Key passed away on April 25, 2007, at the age of 90.