Prospectors have been drilling in Tennessee since the Civil War, searching for a well of bubbling crude. But the industry never amounted to much.
It has taken some big oil strikes this year -- and healthy prices -- to put the state back on the wildcatter's map.
As crude oil prices hover near all-time highs, wells are being drilled in Tennessee and other states that have little existing oil production.
U.S. oil rigs have increased from 750 in 2002 to 1,164 in May, according to oilfield services company Baker Hughes. The industry publication World Oil said nearly every oil state is seeing more activity.
Tennessee is particularly attractive because it has areas that have not been drilled -- and news of a couple of big hits earlier this year is circulating through the industry.
Young Oil Corp. said a well near Livingston in north-central Tennessee produced 150 barrels a day last month, after an earlier big hit. Wells in the state produce about one barrel a day on average.
A price of nearly $40 a barrel is reminding some old hands of the period before the boom of the early 1980s.
"I tell you, it's hard to even lay down and sleep at night. It's a very, very exciting time," said Anthony Young, chief executive of Young Oil. "We're getting calls from all over the United States, Canada -- everywhere. I just got a call from India."
After the brief boom of the '80s, the oil business in Tennessee slowed to a trickle. But as crude prices started breaking records, new wells started hitting.
Most wells in the United States -- including those in Tennessee -- are small, producing just a few barrels a day. New domestic wells are not likely to boost overall production or affect prices, industry experts said. But they give small operators a chance to make big money.
Tennessee has "had a lot of wells drilled in it, but it's still got thousands of acres of undrilled territory. And that's hard to find in the States," Young said.
Bill Goodwin, president of the Tennessee Oil and Gas Association, said his phone is constantly ringing with people seeking advice on where to drill in the state.
Some are coming from Texas and Oklahoma, well-established oil states where leases have been tied up for years. In Tennessee, they are looking at wide-open areas ripe for prospecting, Goodwin said.
"In most states, it's very well established by now," he said. "The guys that have been in the oil business don't have any room for outsiders."
That is prompting pioneers to start scouting Tennessee, with about 20 companies and as many as 100 individuals looking for oil, Goodwin said. Some people spend their vacations in Tennessee looking at drilling activity and maps, maybe applying some knowledge of geology to hypothesize where the oil might be. Others just guess.
"It's still not an exact science," Goodwin said.
The number of permits issued in Tennessee last year for new wells roughly doubled over the previous year, from 140 to 281. Production increased 14 percent to 359,924 barrels for the year, the state geologist reported.
Production had been declining since a 1982 peak of more than 1 million barrels of oil.
But Tennessee is a minor player and will likely remain that way. Alaska, for instance, can produce hundreds of millions of barrels a year, and fewer than one in every 8,000 U.S. barrels of oil comes from Tennessee.
The upside is that Tennessee is still a place where individuals can try their hands at the risky business.
"Tennessee is still a place where you can knock on a door and get a lease for $1 [an acre a year plus royalties], and they'll offer you a cup of coffee, too," Goodwin said.
It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill for oil, making a dry well a costly mistake, so some investors are hesitant to sink money in an oil well, Goodwin said.
, "Enron hurt everybody," Goodwin said. When you call somebody about an oil deal, they say, 'Yeah, I heard about Enron. No thanks.' "
Virginia "Gigi" Lazenby, who owns Bretagne Group oil company of Nashville, said drilling is also slowed by uncertainty over whether prices will stay high. Will the uncertainty in Iraq end, sending prices down? How far will the price-per-barrel drop?
"You don't want to assume it's going to keep that high," she said.
She said prices could drop back to $28 to $30 a barrel and keep the small operators interested. But if it returns to $20 a barrel, the pioneers will probably head home.
"With a little bit of extra capital, the small independents are going to put it into these oil fields," Lazenby said.